More Creative Work Inspired by the Books and Borrowing Project

photograph of author Virginia Crow

© Virginia Crow

This week, we’re happy to present the second of our Highly Commended Creative Writing Competition entries – i.e. works inspired by Books and Borrowing project materials. This week it is a short story, written by Virginia Crow. Virginia is an award-winning historical fiction author who grew up in Orkney, and now lives in rural Caithness. An active part of the writing community, she is also an admin on the Historical Writers Forum. Her writing often includes quiet heroism of unlikely characters, and twists which keep the reader guessing to the final page. She is also a fervent believer in happy endings. When not writing, Virginia is usually to be found teaching music, or walking her two spaniels in the Caithness countryside. She loves cheese, music, and films, but hates mushrooms, and her website is


Virginia’s story, ‘A Silent Romance Among Words’, was inspired by the Victorian Borrowers’ Register of Innerpeffray Library, pictured above. We hope you will enjoy reading it.

A Silent Romance Amongst Words

It had been a long winter.

Kitty Duff’s hand rested on the books in her lap, willing herself to believe in them. It had been almost four months since Mister Grenville had recommended them to her. She could still remember his expression. He had smiled, a squint smile which had allowed it to remain hidden from Kitty’s chaperons. That week, they had been her guardian’s gardeners, who had as little interest in books as any men could. She had picked out volumes for them, recommending books with enough pretence of interest to satisfy them. But her books had been chosen very carefully.

She looked across at the River Earn as it flitted in and out of view. John could not afford to travel by carriage as she did. He would be walking along the edge of the river, making his way to their secret meeting place, where they communicated in silence, sharing their love for one another in the only way they were permitted to do so: through books.

The carriage rattled up the hill toward the library. As it stopped, her heart fluttered and, without waiting for the driver to open the door, she pushed it back and smiled. Her steps never faltered as she glided forwards. Perhaps John would be there already, for she had not seen him since this morning when he had nodded to her so slightly she could almost convince herself she had imagined it, except that he had accompanied it with that irresistible smile he reserved for the days they would be able to meet one another.

With books in hand, Kitty rushed through the door of the library. The scent of centuries met her, the aroma of learning and the promise of all it had taught. Savouring it for only a moment, she climbed the stairs to where Mister Grenville would be waiting.

This spacious room belied the compact image of the building from outside. Light flooded through the windows, the volumes soaking in the sun rays from within their glass cages. Kitty had never seen them looking so radiant. She turned a full circle to take in each one. The delight in doing this, however, faded rapidly. Mister Grenville was not here.

Setting her books down on a table, she opened the cover of The Betrothed and removed the card which she had treasured since the beginning of December. It clearly stated today’s date.

“Forgive me, I had another reader downstairs.”

Kitty’s gaze rested upon the round face of Mister Grenville whose red cheeks made his smile seem only purer. This gesture was enough to settle her own nerves and she returned it with one of her own.

“Is John here, Mister Grenville?”

“Not yet, Miss Duff. He’ll arrive soon, I have no doubt.”

Kitty willed herself to believe him but, as she looked over the view, her certainty faded. There was no one on the river path. What if the entire romance, so often unspoken and enfolded within the bindings of their library books, had been nothing more than a ruse to prove to Sir Francis that she had disobeyed him? There had been occasions she had fallen foul of her guardian’s terrible temper, but she could not imagine how much greater his rage would be this time. Determined not to succumb to this fear, she set her hand on The Betrothed and released a sigh.

“You are certain, Mister Grenville, that this book was intended for me?”

“Entirely, Miss Duff.”

“Would you..?” She allowed her cheeks to lift into a hopeful smile. “Would you tell me what he said?”

Mister Grenville smiled broadly, ushering Kitty to a chair. “How long he spent searching for those books! He asked me to set them aside, and for pen and ink. I told him I didn’t want anyone writing in them, even someone I liked so much as him. ‘Don’t you be writing on my volumes, Master Niven,’ I said, but he shook his head at me. I didn’t understand his concern until he motioned to the register. ‘He’d not take kindly to this behaviour,’ he said, pointing to the police constable’s name. ‘I’m a miller today, Mister Grenville, and my name’s McClean.’ So that was what I had to list him as: McClean Niven.”

“I don’t mind telling you, Mister Grenville, my heart sped to see those books. Did I misunderstand their meaning? What if Darling John did not mean to elope?”

“If you misunderstood it, Miss Duff, then I also have failed to see their relevance.”

“And the card shows only today’s date.” Kitty felt her exasperation reach a climax. “But then why isn’t he here? All winter I’ve watched him serve Sir Francis; winced at the treatment he has received from such a brute; and revelled in the rare moments of praise I have heard in his favour. I have exchanged silent vows with him whenever our eyes met, and I convinced myself he was doing the same.”

“Master Niven will be here soon.” Mister Grenville produced a handkerchief from his breast pocket in an elaborate flourish. “There will be a reason he’s been delayed.”

Kitty took the offered handkerchief but forced her cheeks to remain dry. “But if Sir Francis should return home and find I’m absent, he will know to find me here. If he finds me…”

“Master Niven will be here soon,” Mister Grenville repeated.

The library had fallen silent after this statement. Mister Grenville’s eyes continued to move towards the window, while Kitty’s thoughts rested on the carriage which waited outside. The longer John took to arrive, the more perilous their elopement would become. This entire escapade had been a foolish notion!

She jumped to her feet as she heard the door downstairs. Steps, hasty and purposeful, sounded on the stairs and Kitty moved forward at the same time as the carriage driver appeared. She had been so certain it would be John, that she stumbled backwards, catching herself on the table to ensure she did not fall. The driver did not appear to notice.

“You should be returning, Miss Duff,” he remarked. “Sir Francis was to dine at home tonight, and sunset’s approaching.”

“I haven’t chosen a new book,” Kitty remarked and, though her voice carried an air of self-assurance, she could feel her hands trembling as she gripped the corners of her cape. “I will not be long.”

“Miss Duff,” Mister Grenville began. “Allow me to make some suggestions.”

“Thank you,” she replied, dismissing her driver with the promise of choosing quickly. As the door closed, she repeated her thanks to Mister Grenville, with a little more earnestness now.

The sun was setting through the window which looked towards the river. Kitty’s hopes faded with it, and she wondered how she would excuse her absence to her guardian when she returned. Patient and kind, Mister Grenville offered her refreshments, but she refused them all.

“He has been delayed,” the librarian soothed, constantly glancing towards the darkening glass. “That is all.”

“Or he has decided not to come,” Kitty whispered. “Have I been a fool? I should never have trusted sidewards looks, and words within books.”

Mister Grenville sighed. “I have never been party to a romance such as yours, but I’m certain it was built solely on love. I’ve watched you both for more than two years, from that first time you arrived together, to his desperate determination last November. There was no deceit in that exchange, Miss Duff. And, when he returned the following month, it was elation I witnessed in his eyes: that you had taken the books, and knew what they meant. Do you know what he said?”

Kitty bit in her lips in an attempt to maintain her composure, and shook her head.

“He said: ‘Mister Grenville, this will be a long winter.’ And then he picked any book from the shelf and left with the greatest spring in his step I have ever observed in any man.”

Both turned towards the stairs as they heard the door once more, but Kitty felt her feet become lead as she recognised her guardian’s voice.

“Mister Grenville?”

She tried to snatch out at the librarian, but her fingers only brushed through air. She listened, hearing the conversation in the quiet of what was otherwise an empty building.

“Sir Francis,” Mister Grenville began, his tone warm and amicable. “It’s been some years since I have had the pleasure of seeing you here. You have come for a book, of course. You were always an ardent reader.”

“I’ve come for my ward, Mister Grenville. She is here, is she not? For that is my carriage outside, and my driver who sits shivering upon it.”

“She was intent on seeing the daffodils in the dusk.” There was concern in his voice, so great that Kitty almost believed him. “Perhaps she’s there still, or wandered further than she intended.”

Silence followed this statement. One second. Then two.

Kitty could imagine her guardian’s expression of scornful disbelief. She shuffled towards the stairs, certain now that this romance had only been a game, a cruel torment in which her aching heart yearned to believe. But if she appeared now, it would prove Mister Grenville a liar. She reached the stairs, desperately searching for the answer to this new conundrum.

Then stopped.

“Master Niven,” Mister Grenville stated, and Kitty felt again the excitement of all today had promised. “I’ve not yet closed my register for the day, and I believe those books are mine.”

“Yes, indeed. I was on my way to return them when Sir Francis passed by. I offered to come and search for Miss Duff with him.”

“Sir Francis does not believe me.” Mister Grenville sounded more sad than angry. “Why don’t you go and search through the library while he and I search the garden? While we three talk, I’m quite sure poor Miss Duff is growing frightened to be alone. Set the books on the table upstairs. I’ll sort them when I return.”

Kitty listened to John’s tread on the stairs and his voice gently calling out her name. She was desperate to run to him, but waited until she heard the other two men leave to search the library grounds.

John discarded the books and rushed towards her. “I was so afraid you would leave before I got here.”

“I was beginning to think I had misunderstood you,” Kitty laughed, her words a whisper as she reached out her hand.

“Kitty, my love, you know my heart, for you have seen it written so many times hidden between pages and within the lines of these books. Surely you knew I couldn’t leave without you.”

“How are we to escape?”

“This way,” beckoned Mister Grenville’s voice.  “Quickly, for Sir Francis is returning.”

The couple found Mister Grenville waiting at the bottom of the stairs. Without communicating a word, he ushered them to another door. Twisting back a heavy bolt, he eased the door open, wincing as it groaned on ancient hinges.

“Follow the path to the river, and cross by the ford. I believe you will find someone waiting to take you.”

“Thank you,” John said, passing through and offering his hand back to Kitty.  She paused and kissed the librarian’s cheek.

“I cannot thank you enough, but I should like to know why you have done so much for us.”

Mister Grenville rested his fingers on his cheek for a moment and smiled. “Because, a long time ago, it was Sir Francis who looked for this help, and I refused it. I’ve seen what has become of him since, and I would not have the same thing upon my conscience a second time.”

Kitty would have liked to know more of her guardian’s past, but Mister Grenville was already closing the door, and John’s outstretched hand was the only invitation she needed to begin the next chapter of her own romance.