'Twas in that season of the year,
When all things gay and sweet appear,
That Colin, with the morning ray,
Arose and sung his rural lay.
Of Nannie's charms the shepherd sung:
The hills and dales with Nannie rung:
While Roslin Castle heard the swain,
And echoed back his cheerful strain.
--Roslyn’s Castle, 1776 (Scot’s Tunes)
"We the undersigned, inhabitants of Hempstead Harbor, Queens County, Long Island, State of New York, finding a serious inconvenience in our village, particularly in our Post Office arrangements, from the similarity of names… do therefore resolve, that the above mentioned Post Office and Village shall hereafter be known by the name Roslyn..."
-- September 7, 1844
* * *
The librarian has one goal: to find the right book and match it with the right person at just the right time. There are tales of love that inspire a lifelong romance and tales of love lost where a quick ignited flame is as quickly dashed out by fate. There are stories of courage that send a generation off to war. There are old legends that give a place a name and an anchor in history. And then there are those unexpected tales that can happen in an old library on an autumn night, which can level you and change the course of your entire life.
My given name is Meghan Ann Rees, but everyone around here just calls me ‘Megs.’ I’ve lived for years in the sleepy town of Roslyn Harbor, a town frozen in time. At thirty-two years of age, I’ve reached that point where you look for those things that are missing in your life, just the way a librarian searches the stacks for a missing or misplaced book—and if you find it—you grab it up the first chance you get.
And yet, at times, I believe that all of my passion will be shut in my chest for eternity and that I myself will become petrified like the totem of the old Clock Tower on Old Northern Boulevard and Main Street and people will pass by me day and night never knowing the longings of my heart and the fraught virtuosity of my troubled brain—all pent up like old knickknacks and chachkas forgotten in a dusty attic. And I will be cursed to eternal silence, screaming inside to tell my tales, but shuttered and muffled by my stony coffin. But when I am inspired to act on my impulses, I freeze like that girl for whom our town is named. Frozen, I watch as my chance passes forever. Just the other day I suffered one of these spells when Cam asked me to a sit-down dinner at Port Washington Yacht Club for the Venetian Nights Lighted Boat Parade they have every year at the end of this week.
Fall in Roslyn Harbor was a time of magic. Hendrick’s Tavern was serving its famous baked New England Clam Chowder. Chrysanthemum, pansies, asters, and goldenrod were in bloom in the Old Westbury Gardens. The trees were both boastful with their varicolored pageantry of yellows, browns, greens, and reds, and at the same time bashful and retiring, shedding a blanket of crisp prickly leaves, tucking in the grasses and flowers of the fields under their covers and whispering that it is time for them to sleep soon.
People were out by Roslyn Park Pond feeding the ducks until sundown. And as night crept in on this sleepy September evening, a gusty wind picked up the chill of winter to come and blew the settlers into warm and cozy places by hearths and blanketed living rooms drawn with curtains and candlelight. And the door of my library opened to reveal a tall, imposing figure coming in from the dark chill.
He was a man who was easy to trust, a tall English looking man of Scottish descent with manners and substance. He was in his mid-seventies and had the look of a man who was well-worn with life, like a book whose bindings were getting loose, and which had a few pages ready to bolt. Nonetheless, his mannerisms and his carriage all told a different story, of a man brimming with energy and full of purpose. He wore a tan trench coat over a stylish Green Donegal tweed suit with a wool blend, pulled together with a red tie, and carried a silver handled knob walking cane. The pink rosacea and prominent crooked nose, bulbed at the end, underneath square rimmed reading glasses, gave him the look of a wise soul brimming with happy secrets, of which a few were about to be revealed.
“I have come tae avail myself o' yer substantial talents,” he said as if issuing a proclamation.
I had never heard it put quite that way, but from Professor Kaming it sounded even more flattering. It was the way you would expect him to put it. Proper and yet containing enough subtext to be a little naughty.
He beamed and looked around the room with mirth, saying, “It's a braw library ye hae here in this auld toon—an' whit a name fer a toon tae—Roslyn Harbor—whit a fascinatin' name.”
I gave him the smile I reserved for regulars and political types who controlled our funding and said, “How may I be of service?”
He didn’t go to it immediately. “I unnerstaun' this library has some auld historical documents frae the Revolutionary War period aboot Onderdock’s Paper Mill an' George Washington’s Spy Trail an' his visit here in 1790, an' the like,” Professor Kaming said.
This was an easy one for me to answer: “Oh yes. We have a sizable collection of historical documents, and a whole collection from the post-war period, diaries from the Culper Spy Ring, news stories from Washington’s visit, documents about the Paper Mill, and all of it is there in our history stacks in the back room.”
“Aye, aye. I’d imagine sae. But, whit about some mair peculiar curiosities?” Mr. Kaming asked.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Ye wouldn't, perhaps, be familiar wi' Robert Gaston Herbert an' his murals, by any chance, wad ye?” As Mr. Kaming posed the question, he raised his eyebrows expectantly and I felt anticipation in my breast, as I began to wonder where this was going.
“How could I not be? There’s an old mural, with tartan-clad Scottish soldiers departing Hempstead Harbor after the war singing the Scottish Tune ‘Roslyn’s Castle’ as they left—and there was a girl of seventeen looking on from the very spot where this library sits and overlooks the Harbor. The legend is that she had fallen in love with an Officer in the 71st Highland Regiment of Foot. But her hopes of love were dashed when the war ended. That is the legend that gave this town its name.” As I concluded, I raised my palms to the ceiling and rotated my forearms outward in a triumphant version of the apology shrug.
“Dear God! That’s exactly the mural I’m interested in. Please, please tell me ye can find it.”
“Well, I don’t know, we can certainly see if we can locate a copy,” I said.
“Ye see, I want tae find that lassie. Doesn't anyone know who she is?”
* * *
There were piles of enormous parchments on long easel tables in the old map room. As I checked the indexes and poured laboriously through sheafs of tabulations, looking for the exact mural in question, Professor Kaming continued talking.
“Roslin Castle is in Midlothian, sooth o' Edinburgh, an' the toon o' Roslin was the verra spot whaur the war for Scottish independence was fought. The chapel in Roslin Castle wis built by the Knights Templar an' wis the site o' mony a tale o' the auld Grail legend. It sits juist aff the shou'ders o' the heichest point o' the land, overlookin' the sea juist a wee bit doon the road. The Midlothian trails lead uphill tae Arthur's Summit at its heid an' the Queen's Gallery at its feet.”
His voice filled the small chamber with a musical quality from the rhythm of his speech, and, in my mind, while he spoke, I imagined this girl, barely a woman, who had fallen in love with an enemy soldier, frozen on the hill by the bay, looking out across the waters to Connecticut as the love of her life departed for his homeland. I can see her there, stiff and solemn, waving into infinity as the boys and girls of the village sang that haunting song with glee and cheered their victory over these invaders that had requisitioned their homes for seven summers. Farmers with hoes and rakes and rifles would be up on the hill with high emotion. All the while her heart was wrought in two as she fought to catch one last glimpse of the ships mast, fading into the horizon.
Maybe she was an Irish girl like me, with a name like Rosalind. Maybe she too was a firebrand, with red hair and a stubborn attitude, a mercurial Cancer who was both unfailingly loyal and yet volatile and capable of high emotion. A nervous animal with a warning bite.
How could she have made that journey? Did she stand still on the shores and return to her home, or did she set sail and go after him? Did she reach that town across the world, a mirror, with the same name as the town that was named for her? And what kind of coincidence could it be that she was named for the very place he was from, a name meaning “pretty rose.”
Mr. Kaming continued, “Ane day in 1776, a lassie arrived on a boat tae find a Scottish Brigadier o' the 71st Highland Regiment an' cam' tae live oot the rest o' her days in Roslin. But naebody knew her maiden name or whaur she cam' frae. But I was in Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street in Manhattan jist the ither day, no' a week or twa ago, an' there wis an auld plaque on the wa' wi' the saying: 'While Roslin Castle heard the swain, And echoed back his cheerful strain,' an' an inscription an' miniature o' the mural below it, wi' the name o' this here toon.”
As he was saying this and the mystery began to come into focus, I laid my hands on the mural, with its rich colorful depiction of the very scene that had consumed our thoughts this strange autumn night. There she was—Rosalind.
“I found it!” I said. But there was no response.
I looked back and saw that Professor Kaming had slumped down on a drafting stool. He had his head in his hands, and he was weeping. He wept for a few moments, then pulled out a satin handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes and the lines of salty tears covering the jowls of his age worn face.
“It’s her, it’s her!” he exclaimed.
He pulled a locket out from the jetted pocket of his green blazer and thumbed the lip so that it opened to show facing pictures drawn in faded ink. On the left side was a man that looked like a younger version of Mr. Kaming, and on the right side was the spitting image of the girl Rosalind from the mural. I gasped and put my hands to my mouth.
“Ye see, my 6th great grandmother was an American lassie who had journeyed tae the toon o' Roslyn frae Hempstead in 1776. When I heard the story, I knew I had tae find oot the truth. Efter a', I hae a Rosalind o' my very own, an' she left me some ten years ago noo, but there's a vast sea an' a lang journey hame tae the shores o' my ancestral hame that I'll be makin' sae I can see her again. Ye see, it's in my bones an' in the legend o' my family that when ane lover leaves, the ither mustun follow efter, even across the deepest o' oceans or the precipice o' time, even across the veil o' death itsel'.”
And as tears started to form on my own ruddy cheeks, the old Professor got up, standing toweringly tall above me, and with the kindest of smiles he took a step toward me, and then another, and wrapped his long lanky arms all the way around me and hugged me for a minute.
Then he straightened out his coat and collected himself, and thanked me, and turned and stopped a moment by the door, turning back, and said, “I suppose I'll be on ma way noo.”
“Wait, wait,” I said.
It was only at that moment, after this extraordinary night of mysteries and journeys through time that I recognized the story that this man needed to spur him on his journey. Just the right book for just the right person at just the right time.
The Professor followed me dimly as if these revelations had depleted his soul as I brought him to the racks of Medieval Literature. Where was it now? It had to be just somewhere over here… and there it was! Thomas Malory's The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones. Perhaps the tale on which it is based truly took place right in the Scottish town of Roslin.
I handed the book to Professor Kaming and said, “take this with you for your journey.” We smiled at each other and I held on to the book for a moment as he grasped it, holding it back just long enough to underscore its importance, and then let it go.
“I am much obliged, young lass, and Godspeed ye on yer journey. If I can leave ye wi' one thing frae our short time thegither, it wad be this. Whatever yer heart desires moyst, even if the verra sands o' time stand in yer way, pursue it tae yer dyin' breath wi' every bit o' courage ye can muster, an' mak' yer pursuit wi' a sang on yer lips an' a leap in yer heart.”
And with that he was gone.
* * *
The boats in the regalia of the Venetian Nights Lighted Boat Parade formed a line along the bay, with the strung lights in cool blues, deep purples, warm oranges, translucent aquamarines, and Christmas-tree reds leaving colored trails along the cool waters of the Hempstead Bay. The stars above glistened with a million pin pricks of light.
Crackling bonfires on the yards and tiki torches on the docks reverberated with clicks and smacks of flame across the bluffs. The call of a stray Whip-poor-will whistled its haunting high notes into the looping night breezes. The buzzy, raspy click of the katydids pierced the night with an “eh eh eh, katy did” emanating from the trees along the shore.
The smell of herbaceous fern and the spicy, musky hint of asper mixed with the acrid and unmistakable smell of the phosphorous of the bay with its powdery ragweed and sagebrush notes. These muted aromas wafted in with the breeze and the lapping tide. The air was neither moist nor dry, but just right and bathed the skin in a feeling like the slightest hint of moisturizing cream carried in the dusk.
Cam looked over at me and said, “what made you come out tonight Megs.”
I smiled back at him and said, “it’s a long story.”