Summer Reading 2022
All this week I’ve been sharing excerpts from a standalone chapter from my work-in-progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson.
To read previous excerpts, click here…
William is being haunted by intimate letters sent to his childhood friend, Teddy, which are being mysteriously returned to him. Teddy is equally shocked by the discovery that William’s letters have been stolen from Teddy’s room, and might be used to blackmail them both. William takes an awkward stroll in the park with his fiancée (and Teddy’s sister), Alice, where she reveals that she is the one who has been sending the letters. She knows all, and she had hoped that the threat of exposure would scare William into ending all communication with her brother. All seems bleak, but William’s hopes are raised by by a telegram from Teddy, asking to see him. However, Teddy just wants to ensure that William will handle the blackmailer during Teddy’s absence in Somaliland. Teddy thinks the blackmailer is Doyle, his family butler.
Your Affectionate Friend
(Chapter 5 of The Descent of Chloe Jackson)
Paul C. Mercer
(part seven of seven)
I believe Doyle’s suspected us for some time. Think about it; how often did you write to me at home? At least half your letters came to me at Graham Street, and he took delivery of every one of them. When I replied, he posted my letters to you. For all we know, he’s been steaming them open.’
‘Teddy. It wasn’t Doyle.’
‘They were hidden, William. I can only think that he made a thorough search of my room.’
‘They were on your desk.’
Teddy was shocked into silence. But he didn’t deny it.
‘They were in full view of anyone who happened to wander in. It wasn’t Doyle. It was Alice.’
William’s own shock from a few hours earlier was mirrored in Teddy’s face now.
‘There’s no Sword of Damocles. She won’t say anything.’
‘Alice? Alice knows?’
‘Oh, yes. We had a very forthright conversation on the matter.’
‘There were worse possibilities. Worse even than Doyle. But, thankfully, I can’t think of anyone less likely to want those letters made public than your sister and my fiancée.’
‘Your fiancée? You cannot think to marry her after this. She would not consent. I would not consent.’
‘We have no choice, Teddy.’
‘You disgust me. You disgust all good Christian folk. Do you seriously believe I will allow my sister to marry such as you?’
The betrayal hurt more than the hypocrisy. The injustice hurt more than the cowardice. And the pain was too much.
Back at home, Mother fluttered in the hallway, the telegram in her hand, demanding to know what Teddy had to say that was so urgent.
‘Nothing. Nothing important.’
He would have to do better than that, but what could he possibly say?
‘He asked me to look after Alice. That was all.’
‘And that required an urgent assignation under the Campanile?’
She waved the telegram in his face, and he brushed it to one side, unable to think or speak clearly. What did she mean by “assignation”? What could she possibly mean? He stumbled away from her, up the stairs, ignoring her repeated demands for an explanation.
There was no light in the nursery, but that which came in through the window from the gaslit street. He was alone, but there were hushed whispers outside the door. There was no lock, and nothing he could do to prevent Mother’s imminent arrival. He stood in the middle of the room, and waited.
But, when the door opened, it was Father’s silhouette which stood, framed in the doorway. Father peered into the darkened, and unfamiliar, room. It was a threshold he had never been known to cross, and he seemed almost wary. Uncomfortable.
‘Your Mother directs me to speak to you. Would you rather I join you in the nursery, or will you come to the library?’
The home advantage wasn’t enormous, but it was worth hanging on to. William said nothing.
‘Very well, then.’ Father stepped into the room. He closed the door carefully behind him, even though it left them both pretty much in the dark.
‘It seems that I am to discuss family expectations and filial responsibilities.’
‘There is no need.’ They could barely see each other, let alone look each other in the eye. It was oddly comforting. ‘I understand my responsibilities, to you and to Miss Marrable.’
‘I’m pleased to hear it. She has grown up to become a quite delightful young lady.’
‘She is everything I could wish for.’
‘Hmm.’ There was a shuffling of feet in the dark, and the clearing of a throat. ‘And then, there is Edward.’
It was said softly, without any hint of accusation, but with the authority of a Solomon. He knew. He had always known. And Mother? Probably. All that talk of burning ardour.
In many respects, it was a relief. Neither of them said anything for a considerable while. It was almost companionable.
‘He leaves tomorrow morning, I understand.’
‘On the tide.’
‘You have… said your farewells?’
‘Good. All well and good. Somaliland will make a man of him, I’m sure. And it is reassuringly far away.’
William blotted his signature, and got up from the desk, leaving the letter for a moment. He stepped over to the fireplace, took hold of the poker, and stirred the glowing remnants of those other letters; the one that had started that long day, those that had lain hidden in the toybox, and those which he had taken from Alice in the park that afternoon. The telegram was there, too; every shred of written evidence now reduced to ash. Just as Father had suggested.
He returned to the desk, and reviewed the letter he had written moments earlier.
23 Hastings Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin
6 November 1907
Darling Alice, I hope you will believe the strength of my enduring affection. I cannot expect your forgiveness for the hurt I have done you, but, if you can enlarge your heart so much as to show compassion to a repentant sinner, how much more will that sinner repay you in grateful devotion? I would yet be a husband to you, and a loving father to any number of children, if you will have me.
It is with some hesitation, therefore, that I beg to inform you that I expect to leave Dublin shortly to take up the position of Assistant Medical Officer at the County Asylum in Kent – Father has a connection. The appointment is pro tempore, and I expect to return by the end of next year with a great deal of useful experience, and much improved future prospects. At such time, we might marry, if that remains your desire after such a period of separation, and we might then find ourselves some place or other where I might take up a permanent position. Or, after such a period of estrangement, it would not be so very surprising should we inform our friends that the bonds of marriage no longer hold the same appeal. Whichever you desire, will be my desire also.
God bless you.
Yours, with undying devotion and the greatest affection, William.
He placed the letter in an envelope, and directed it to Miss Alice Marrable.
And then, there was the other letter. If he sent it via the Swedish Embassy in London, it would find Teddy as he made his final preparations with the missionaries.
My Dearest Teddy, I beg you to destroy this letter, but not before you have found in it the proof of my enduring love. I have made every attempt to excise the memory and thought of you from my mind and from my heart, but to no avail. Do not fear – I will keep our secret, and take the memory of it to my grave, if necessary. But I will never regret that purest of bonds which we forged. Brief though it may have been, I will ever cherish the time we were given together. There will never be another as dear to me as you. But you have found another love in Christ, and I must wish you joy.
I will not see you before you leave for Somaliland, and I fear that I may not see you ever again. Burn this now, as you remain burnt ever into my heart.
Your affectionate friend, William.
Thank you so much for sticking with William and me right through to the end. I hope you enjoyed it.
William’s story is just one of thirty such stories in my Work-in-Progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson. Members of my Readers’ Club can read another one, A Very Small Pond, right now.
There’ll be another Readers’ Club Freebie at Christmas, and maybe another Reading Week for everyone next year.
And, one day, it’ll all come together and look something like this…
In the meantime, I hope you’ll sign up for the newsletters and keep in touch. It’s a long and laborious journey ahead of me, and it’d be nice to have friends come along for the ride.
As always, please share these stories with all your book-loving friends, and encourage them to join our adventure.