Rook’s Flight

This is the first in a new series of posts inspired by the National Trust Collections in the U.K.  To take part in the series, select an image from the National Trust Collections site by searching on their site, and send us a submission – fiction, poetry, music, or whatever you like – inspired by the image you select. Submissions can be sent to snakeoilcure[at]gmail[dot]com.

This post is based on this image from the National Trust Collections.

*

Strangeweather cocked his head to the left then to the right. In his eyes there was an odd shade of unfocused that appeared only during times of the deepest concentration. He was not examining the object; he was bathing in it.

“Peculiar,” he muttered, turning it over in his hands. His breath clouded the little corner of our Edinburgh public house. While I shivered in the December cold that was swimming in through the open doorway, Strangeweather seemed warmed by this newest of mysteries. “What do you make of it, my friend?”

“It’s a rook,” I said, for it was a rook.

“Mmm.” Strangeweather placed it on the table between our drinks. “Yes, indeed. But what does it mean?”

“I… don’t follow, Strangeweather.”

“A rook it is, and a rook it is not. Divorced from the rest of its platoon, removed from the drawing room battlefield that we call a chess board, it must be more than just a rook.”

“Must it?” I tried to contain my exasperation. “So are you going to tell me where it came from?”

Strangeweather paused. “Ebony. Oriental design—very carefully carved. This belongs to a unique set of chess pieces. A set of pieces that belonged to Arthur McTavish.”

I was startled. McTavish was an old university friend of Strangeweather’s. “Your doctor acquaintance? But I thought he died in the last Burmese conflict?”

Strangeweather lifted his cup to his mouth and drained it. His eyelids closed a little, narrowing his gaze, and the corners of his mouth turned upward into a devilish smirk. I disliked this expression intensely. “So did I, my friend.”

“To London?” I grimaced.

“Aye, Mr Butler. To London.”

*

The Caledonian carriage pulled mercifully into Victoria station. The tendons in my legs had been screaming in pain since we passed through Nottingham. While Strangeweather pulled his red slipcase from above our seats, I collected and dusted off my hat.

Mrs. McTavish resided not far from the station, in a relatively modest house situated above a small greengrocer’s. For a doctor’s wife, this seemed a little restrained.

The widow greeted us, ushered Strangeweather and me into a small dining room, and went to fetch some tea.

“How well do you know McTavish’s wife?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

“Oh, rather well,” Strangeweather replied. “She was a society girl during our university years. Arthur and Eloise married soon after he moved south and opened his London practice.”

The widow returned with a carefully balanced tray bearing fine, intricately patterned China. She poured and gestured to us to sit. Finally, she perched on the edge of a chaise and picked up her cup delicately.

“So I suppose you want to know about Arthur,” she said.

“That’s right.” If he was surprised, Strangeweather did not show it. He told Eloise about the chess piece. Several days prior to our ale house conversation, a parcel had arrived at his rooms on the Royal Mile addressed to ‘Edward Strangeweather’. This, he told us, was his first clue. “I do not favour the name ‘Edward’. Only a handful of close acquaintances know my Christian name at all.”

“And the parcel contained this rook?” Eloise McTavish asked.

“Yes. But it also contained this.” Strangeweather opened his slipcase and removed from it with some care a heavy, tarnished object. It was a pistol. He handed it to Mrs. McTavish, who turned it over several times before noticing the letters scratched into the wooden handle. They read: Your move.

Mrs. McTavish rose, handed the weapon back to Strangeweather, and left the room. In seconds, she returned and placed a carved figurine of a horse on the table in front of me. Its design perfectly matched that of the rook, with small, narrowly carved crenellations that extended from a crown on the knight’s head. “I received this in the post a week ago,” she said. “I have no idea where it came from.”

“Curious,” I said.

Strangeweather glanced at me. “Spirits up, Mr. Butler.”

*

Our boarding for the duration of our stay was an inn in the Edgware Road, sparse but functional. I knew that Strangweather had money at his disposal, but he seemed never to spend it on accommodations, and as such, we shared a room on the first floor.

As we reached the door, a quiet but audible breath escaped from Strangeweather’s mouth and his movements slowed. I knew these were signs that I should remain silent. He crept closer to the door, reached out, and with a tentative hand pushed it open.

A rush of air, and a wooden thunk. I sprung past Strangeweather to see the window slam shut. Beyond it, a figure scrambling to his feet and scurrying away from the inn. “Strangeweather, I…”

“Mr. Butler.”

Strangeweather had paused half way into the room and was crouched on the floor. In his hand he was turning around a tiny ebony figure of a pawn. “Our visitor was trying to leave us a message, I wager.”

“Aren’t you going to follow him?” I asked

Strangeweather shook his head. “I have all I need, my friend. Someone wants us to think McTavish is alive. And I believe I know who that person is.”

*

The mists that ran the length of the Mile hung for days. A week after our return to Edinburgh, Strangeweather summoned me to his rooms, which lay in their usual disarray.

“Come, come, dear Butler,” he mumbled, in a strangely affable manner. We wound our way upstairs. Eloise McTavish was seated in the one armchair that decorated Strangweather’s drawing room. She smiled thinly at me.

Strangeweather stood near the fireplace, unlit in spite of the cold. Mrs. McTavish looked up and asked: “Well, Edward?”

“Precisely,” Strangeweather replied. I looked at him quizzically. “As I mentioned upon our last meeting, only my oldest and closest friends know my Christian name. Arthur was one in this inner circle. I thought, perhaps, that his death may have been exaggerated, that he may have returned.”

“So you think…?” I had barely expressed my thought before I was interrupted by Strangeweather.

“But I was foolish. Along with the rook and the pistol, you received your knight, Eloise. And we were delivered this.” He pulled the wooden pawn from his pocket and held it up. Brown and black fought for dominance in the grain of its wood.

A pause hung in the air. “A pawn, and yet not a pawn. Let me elaborate. I noticed, Eloise, your beautiful oriental china and your tea. ‘Lahpet’, I believe?”

“Yes,” Mrs. McTavish responded.

“”Lahpet’ is a Burmese tea. A delicacy, yes?”

“I… don’t know. It was a gift.”

“You are also one of my oldest friends, Eloise.”

“Come, what do you mean, Edward?” I was beginning to get frustrated as Strangweather started pacing the floor.

“You recently returned from Burma, did you not? And on your return journey, you brought your lovely china, your ‘lahpet’, and Arthur’s chess set.”

Eloise McTavish’s frame crumpled a little in Strangeweather’s lone armchair. Her voice turned to a whisper. The fight in her had disappeared, replaced by sorrow. “I found him,” she said. “For once, Edward, you were wrong. Arthur is alive, but he has not returned. He is buried deep in the jungles of Burma. All I could salvage of his love were these trinkets. All I could bring back with me were pawns and fallen knights. He is lost to me.”

I was perturbed. “Then – he has not returned…?”

“He is still there. And he no longer wished to spend his life with you. It was you, was it not, my dear?” Strangweather asked.

Eloise nodded sadly.

“You sent me this package in the hopes that I would investigate, would delve into the mystery of Arthur McTavish. That perhaps I would discover that he was still alive, albeit ensconced in an oriental jungle, and that I would bring him back.” Strangeweather paused. “But man cannot shape man against his will.”

He took several steps towards Eloise McTavish and handed her the small pawn, before reaching into his pocket once more to produce the tiny crenelated rook that had begun our mysterious journey.

Strangweather smiled – a rare occurrence – then crouched in front of Eloise and murmured: “I’m sorry, Eloise. Your move.”

* * *

This is the first in a new series of posts inspired by the National Trust Collections in the U.K.  To take part in the series, select an image from the National Trust Collections site by searching on their site, and send us a submission – fiction, poetry, music, or whatever you like – inspired by the image you select. Submissions can be sent to snakeoilcure[at]gmail[dot]com.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

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  1. Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. II, Issue 36 « Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure

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