Your Affectionate Friend
I first published this story in serial format over seven days in July 2022. It’s a self-contained extract from my work-in-progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson, and it tells the story of William Wyman, one of Chloe’s great great grandparents.
It’s Dublin. 1907. William’s future looks bright, his engagement to Alice a formality, but a potential blackmailer has evidence of an affair that could ruin everything...
Your Affectionate Friend
(Chapter 5 of The Descent of Chloe Jackson)
Paul C. Mercer
There was another letter waiting for him. The same plain, white envelope. The same neat, unremarkable hand.
WILLIAM WYMAN ESQ., 23 HASTINGS ROAD, BALLSBRIDGE.
No return address. No overt warning of its hideous contents.
Mother had placed it on the table, neatly squared with his cutlery. Short of eating his breakfast off it, there was no way to avoid the ambush. She was watching him, waiting for him to pick it up, anticipating the delicious moment when he would colour, and tuck the letter away into his inside pocket. She was delighted. Delighted by the letter and what she thought it contained. She had no idea.
When the first one arrived last week, he had been caught unawares. It had been a day like this one. Nothing extraordinary. Nobody left in the dining room, but Mother and Helen, idling away the first few hours of an idle day. He’d been running late for an audience with old Professor Foxwell, angling for a junior position in the Anatomy Department, so he’d barely noticed the unassuming envelope lying on the sideboard. She’d been watching him then, too, scolding him affectionately for his hurried, standing breakfast as he ate directly from the serving dishes, ravenous, but anxious to be on his way. When he’d spotted the letter, he’d considered leaving it until his return, but there’d been a couple of kidneys still congealing in the dish and he’d told himself a few more minutes would make no difference to Foxwell. So, he’d popped another kidney in his mouth, and taken up the envelope. He had opened it, right there in front of his mother and sister. He wouldn’t be making that mistake again. They hadn’t seen the contents of the envelope, but they had seen him gag on the kidney, and stumble from the room.
They had come after him, worried. Concerned. He’d been evasive. Refused to show them the letter. Laughed it off, unconvincingly. And, when Mother leapt to the wrong conclusion, he had allowed it to go unchallenged. Indeed, he had embraced it gratefully by way of a careful denial which Mother took as confirmation of her suspicions. The envelope’s contents was taken to be a love letter from Alice. A billet-doux, and a saucy one at that.
Now, he slid the latest envelope into his pocket, and sat down to a less hurried breakfast. No kidneys today. He had little appetite.
‘I don’t know why she tries to disguise her hand.’ Mother was disappointed with his calm demeanour. ‘I watched Alice Marrable form her first letters as a child, and she can’t fool me.’
If only it were that simple.
Breakfast completed, William stepped into the hallway and dared to examine the unopened envelope. Mother was right, the address was certainly written in a disguised hand; upper case and devoid of character, just the same as all the others. There was only one person who could have written it, and it certainly wasn’t Alice, yet the handwriting betrayed no evidence of Teddy’s confident, cursive strokes. It was an enigma. A painful puzzle.
There was nothing puzzling about the contents of the envelope, however. A letter dating from back in the Summer. The hand immediately recognizable; a scratchy, spidery, uneven scrawl that he had never been able to improve. The hand, and the words, were his own.
Wednesday, 21st August
My Dear Teddy, I was never so pleased as when I received your letter. I wish you would write more often. Sailed with Brookes and his set yesterday, out beyond Wicklow. Inclement, hence no bathing. But it is a lovely place – we must borrow a boat when you get home, you and I. I shall teach you to dive. Brookes was tiresome as ever and complains he never sees you. The gas is playing up and I have no candles, and as I have no news worth relaying, I shall finish. Dublin is dreary without you, and I am a dreary fellow. Write to me soonest,
Your affectionate friend, William
There was nothing else. As before, it was simply his own letter, returned to him in a plain white envelope. He had written this one back in August when Teddy had gone off to London in sanctimonious pursuit of his new-found calling.
They had never taken that boat. Never sailed. Never dived. On reflection, Teddy had never replied to the letter. What a pointless trifle it was; the composition of a moment, forgotten as soon as it was posted. Embarrassingly brief. And shallow. And careless.
But was it incriminating? Surely not. It was a trifle; the sort of note any fellow might write to a chum. Even so, he glanced around before replacing it in his pocket; Mother had the practiced habit of emerging unexpectedly from rooms she had not been seen to enter.
It could only have come from Teddy, of course. But why would he choose to return it some ten weeks later, and in such a provoking fashion? Why the cruelty? The slow, drawn-out torture. The disguised hand. The hurt that flowed from the empty envelopes as he pulled out each one of his own foolish letters.
The view from the nursery windows took in a wide swathe of Hastings Road and the facades of the new homes emerging from their scaffolding across the way. For almost a year, the nursery had been his own private box to a secret theatre; a troupe of foul-mouthed, open-shirted gallants had strutted upon the timber boardwalks of the scaffolding, oblivious to their one-man audience watching from the darkened room opposite. But the superstructure was complete now and the players had moved backstage. The only performance now visible from the window was a comedy double-act on the pavement outside; Mr James had caught Patrick Lloyd unawares, and engaged him in intense conversation. The weather was atrocious, and poor Patrick was doing his best to get away, but Mr James was as unrelenting as the rain. Both men were hunched up; water running off their hats and down their buttoned-up Ulsters. William leant forward to wipe condensation off the window and get a better view.
‘William, are you listening to me?’
Of course, he was. What choice did he have? He had done his best to avoid it, but she had him cornered. At least he was warm and dry, unlike Patrick.
He spent most of his time at home avoiding one parent or the other. Conversations with Father were thankfully few and far between, but they inevitably turned on the subject of William’s future career and, now that Summer had passed, they were becoming more frequent and more insistent. The old man had correspondents in every corner of the Empire, any one of whom might have a position for a middling-decent Trinity graduate. A brief note from Father and all would be settled. All William had to do was choose which corner of the Empire to die in, and whether it should be from malaria, diphtheria or yellow fever. If none of those options appealed, there were always openings in lunacy.
Thankfully, Father could usually be avoided, and he clearly took no more pleasure in the interviews than William did. Mother was more difficult. She was tenacious, and, today, she was everywhere. If the weather had been less dreadful, William would have walked to Forty Acres, or simply strolled down to goggle at the crowds queuing for entry to the Exhibition. As it was, his galoshes were still damp from yesterday’s attempt to avoid her, and the rain had shown no sign of relenting.
Mother had caught him up here in the nursery, watching the carriages splashing through the puddles on Hastings Road, muddied with the run-off from the building works. William had no business being there, but then neither did she, which made it particularly unfair that she had found him. Of course, discovering her son amongst his old playthings only fuelled her maternal instinct, and William had been forced to endure a full half hour of fond reminiscences before Mother got to the point; the reason for her expedition throughout the house to find him. She wished to discuss his marriage.
Actually, not the marriage, but the timing of the wedding itself. Despite three years of official engagement and an unofficial understanding that stretched into barely remembered childhood, the moment, it seemed, was coming fast upon them with inordinate haste.
The sudden urgency was unsettling.
‘Alice has waited long enough, don’t you think?’
‘I hardly know. I’ve seen her so rarely of late.’
‘But she writes. I presume you reply. The ardour still burns.’
‘It does still burn, William? The ardour?’
Was there a correct way to respond to such a question from one’s own mother? He turned back to the window, just in time to see Patrick make his polite escape. Lucky fellow.
‘You cannot assume that any position your father might find for you will allow you to remain in Dublin.’
‘Malacca seems more likely.’
‘Exactly. You have your degree now. You might be gone at any moment, and if you do not take Alice with you as your wife, then I don’t know what I shall have to say to Mrs Marrable.’
‘You are never at a loss for what to say to Mrs Marrable.’
‘William.’ It was the exasperated tone. The rain continued its efforts to wash the mud clean from Hastings Road. Mr James stepped off the pavement and very nearly lost his footing and his dignity. The view from up here really was quite entertaining.
‘William.’ Not exasperation now. Concern. Sympathy? She was so difficult to read sometimes.
‘When two people have known each other as you and Alice have, for so long, growing up together, observing the natural metamorphosis of boy into man, and girl into woman…’
‘It would only be natural. That is all I will say. And, if discretion is observed…’
‘Are you really asking whether Alice and I have been intimate?’
‘I do not judge.’
The raindrops ran down the windowpanes. On the far side of the street a stray dog kept its eyes down out of the rain and ran with apparent purpose from the direction of Lansdowne, disappearing towards Donnybrook.
‘William, you do understand what I’m talking about?’
‘Four years of medical studies, Mother. What kind of physician should I be if I did not understand the mechanics of procreation?’
‘So much more than mechanics, Dear.’
The dog was gone. Mr James had safely navigated his way home. Even the rain had begun to cease. He turned to face her. ‘Alice and I have been companions and more these twenty years. You will have us married by the Spring. I am sure I can wait a few months more.’
‘And how do you think Alice views your admirable self-restraint? It hardly speaks to the passion of your attachment, does it?’
‘Alice knows how much I love her. How much I respect her.’
She sighed. One of her significant sighs. ‘Chivalry is all very well and fine. All I’ll say is how cold and lonely it can be stuck up on a pedestal. Mrs Marrable and I were saying, just the other day…’
‘Please God, Mother! You’ve not been having this discussion with Mrs Marrable?’
‘We are women of the world. As is Alice. And that’s all I’ll say.’
She had left him then, alone in the nursery. He was a little boy again, scolded unfairly for some incomprehensible misdeed, unjustly punished for an innocent childish misdemeanour that broke a rule he would never understand.
Of course, he loved Alice. He had always loved her. She was beautiful, clever, exciting. He enjoyed her company. Her smiles. And he liked it that she liked him. She made him feel interesting. Worthy, even. Comfortable.
So, why had Mother’s words, her incredible suggestion, left him sick to the stomach? Was that truly what Alice wanted? Did that explain her recent coolness? Surely not. And what was he supposed to do, anyway? Spirit her away to a sordid hotel? Service her like some sweaty stallion?
He stood up, and paced the room; a giant in amongst the children’s furniture, looming above Helen’s dolls and the ranks of his own tin soldiers.
The toybox in the corner taunted him; its secret contents gnawing at him, calling to him, aggravating the nausea he already felt.
The letters had been there in the box all the time, tucked behind the building blocks, underneath the spinning top that never span. All through his interview with Mother, his words had been there, silent but menacing, ominously within reach. She could so easily have opened the box. She had stroked the mane of the rocking horse. She had picked up the chalk, and drawn an apple on the slate. What if nostalgia had led her on to an awful discovery?
What if it already had? Perhaps she came up here periodically, just as he had, seeking solitude, or solace in the dusty memories.
He rushed to the box, opened it, and reached down to where the letters lay hidden. They were still there. He pulled them out, holding the small bundle carefully, as if it were contaminated.
From the outside, they were all but identical; the accumulated correspondence of a glorious extended Summer, returned in relentless succession over the course of one dreary week in a miserably wet November. Only the variations in the Post Office’s cancellation stamp marked out one from another. He selected one from the bundle; the one where the ink stamp had left a black smear across the corner of the envelope. There was no point taking the letter from its envelope, but he did so anyway, re-reading his own words, re-living the moments when he wrote them and when he got them back.
My Dear Teddy, What have I done to provoke you to write such a letter? Whatever it may be, it was done without malice or intent. Please forgive me.
You demand that we should sever all ties, but that we can never do. Even if I could bear the thought of separation, our families would not hear of it, and our mutual friends would not understand. Of course, if it is your wish, I will burn your letters, but I cannot so easily erase the memory of our dear friendship, nor can I accept that it should be cast aside so thoughtlessly.
You say that you have found the pure Love of Our Saviour, but is our love not equally true? You use awful words to describe something that was ever pure and honest. You have found Christ, and cast me aside. Is that Christian?
I beg you, write to me again. Tell me how I might undo whatever wrongs I have done you. Take back your uncharitable words, and embrace me once more as your affectionate friend, William.
Possibly, this was a mistake. William had completed three nervous circuits of the tree-lined street and its neighbours before daring to pause outside the familiar black iron gates. There was just enough sun that the wet flagstones steamed gently.
There was no reason to suppose that Teddy was at home, nor that he would be alone, but he had to make the attempt. If there were others in the house, then he might miss the opportunity to confront Teddy, but they would not suspect his motives. He had never needed an excuse to call, and Teddy’s mother, at least, would be pleased to see him.
He climbed the steps, and rang the bell. Doyle was prompt as ever, and gave him no chance for second thoughts. He had just missed the ladies of the house, apparently, but Mr Edward was at home. Doyle took his hat and coat, and left him in the drawing room. There were new curtains at the windows, their bright novelty emphasising the familiarity of the rest of the furnishings, and testament to the infrequency of his visits in recent months. The room was uncomfortable, as it had never been before. He stood by the windows, listening for footsteps on the stairs, his eyes skittering across the patterns on the wide Persian carpet.
When Teddy arrived, he was alone. He slid quietly into the room, closed the door, and made no attempt to approach William. He looked tired. Brittle. He was dressed, but his golden hair was darkened by yesterday’s Macassar, and he was unshaven.
‘What do you want?’
William smiled. Despite everything, it was so good to see him, to be alone with him, to be at the focal point of his attention. He had seen him only once since his return from London; across a room crowded with chattering fools. Teddy had glanced away. Before that it was the Summer. Graduation, and afterwards under the grey granite of the Campanile, laughing and joking now that they’d passed their exams. Being caught there as the bells tolled was supposed to mark you out for failure, but it only applied to undergraduates; they could chime all they like now, Teddy and William had moved beyond their reach. And then, suddenly, Teddy had moved beyond reach altogether.
‘I thought I made it perfectly clear.’
He had. Perfectly.
But, still, to be in the same room as him. ‘Are you well?’
‘Yes, I’m well.’ It was curt. Angry. A blunt dismissal of the social niceties. ‘Why are you here? If you’ve come to bid me farewell, you’ve left it very late. My boat leaves tomorrow morning.’
So soon? He was barely back from London. ‘I didn’t know. You are determined, then?’
‘Did you imagine this was a passing fancy? That I would change my mind? I am called, William. This is my purpose, my God-given work.’
‘You could do God’s work in Ireland.’
‘There’s nothing for me here.’
Nothing, and nobody. Is that truly what he meant? It was hard to reconcile the gaunt, joyless man avoiding his gaze with the boy he had grown up with, with the soulmate he had found last year.
Teddy appeared to be struggling too. He glanced up at William, and there was sorrow and pain as well as anger. ‘It was kind of you to call. But our association must end now. It is God’s will that I go to Somaliland, but it is also His will that we should be parted, that past sins should be accounted for, that temptation should not be put in our way. This is a fresh start, William. For both of us.’
Self-righteous, of course. As ever. But he had never been cruel until now. ‘Why, Teddy? I have accepted the dissolution of our friendship; is that not punishment enough?’
‘I don’t punish you, William. Only myself.’
‘I have burnt your letters.’ Like burning his own hand. ‘You insisted, and I have done it. Am I to burn my own letters as well? Is that why you taunt me? I do not regret a single word of them. They are honest and true. If you would have them destroyed, thrust them into your own fire. Don’t ask me to do it. I shan’t.’
Teddy seemed genuinely perplexed. ‘They are burnt. I have done it. We could not risk their discovery, William. It was for the best.’
‘Damn you, for a liar!’ He had never spoken to Teddy like that. Never spoken to anyone like that. But it was true, and Teddy did not deny it. How could he?
The letters were in William’s pocket. Six of them, in their near-identical envelopes. He withdrew them, and held them out.
There was no sign of recognition from Teddy. Apprehension and confusion, perhaps some element of fear, but no hint of familiarity. Teddy took the envelopes from William and examined them carefully, ‘What are they?’ Warily, he began pulling a letter from its envelope. It was less than halfway withdrawn when he stopped. He knew it then. Recognised it. He cast his eyes to William in panic, then pulled each envelope open sufficient only to verify its contents. For a moment he held the evidence at arm’s length, his breath held. He released all at once; the letters dropping to the Persian carpet just as a ragged breath signalled a return to his senses. A mute outstretched hand begged William to wait, and he left the room without a word.
Teddy’s footsteps shook the stairs and ran the length of the corridor above. The door that opened and slammed shut was the door to Teddy’s bedroom. Faint scrabbling sounds came down through the ceiling, and an exclamation. Then silence.
William’s eyes were drawn back down to the envelopes, which cut pale rectangles into the carpet; six angular intrusions into the rich reds and blues. He gathered them up and, for want of a better receptable, replaced them in his pocket.
The returning footsteps were more measured. Almost laboured. When Teddy reappeared, he was even paler than before. He closed the door carefully and took a moment before finding his words. ‘I was weak, William. You will call me a hypocrite, and a fool, but I couldn’t bear to destroy them. They were hidden, but they are gone. There were a dozen of them, but they are all gone.’
William had walked straight home. Fled, actually. Teddy’s distraught confession had quickly turned to bitter condemnation of William for having written such foolish words in the first place. And William himself had twisted and turned through so many exhausting emotions he no longer knew what he felt. It was the injustice that hurt most. And yet, Teddy, who said he felt nothing, had kept the letters; he dreaded their discovery and disclosure, yet he had kept them, out of fondness.
Then there was the other question, of course; if it wasn’t Teddy returning the letters, then who was it? And why? But that was barely worth considering; it was not Teddy, and it never had been.
As soon as he came through the door, Mother’s voice swam out from the drawing room, the voice she reserved for social occasions, discussing the relative fairness of the afternoon’s weather in comparison to the morning, which had been less fine, to be sure. He made a half-hearted attempt to creep past, but he never stood a chance.
‘William, is that you?’ It was a summons.
Mother’s circle was wide, but she had her favourites. It was no surprise to find her sat with Mrs Marrable, but it was a shock. Had she followed him here, taken a short cut and arrived ahead of him? No, that was impossible. It was a coincidence. Unless this was the terrible answer to the question that so haunted Teddy. But Mrs Marrable was a transparent woman, and right now she radiated nothing but exasperated affection. ‘There he is. Sure, but your ears were burning just now, William.’
William kept his composure. ‘After all these years, I am amazed you still find anything of interest in me to discuss.’
‘Oh, you’re a constant source of surprise, Darling.’ It was Alice. He hadn’t noticed her, in the bay window. She must have watched him mount the steps outside. Had she read anything in his expression? Had there been anything to read?
‘Alice. How wonderful.’ He almost stumbled as he crossed the room and kissed her, aware all the time of their matronly audience.
‘Mama believes we’ve had a spat, you visit so seldom.’
‘Nonsense. I’ve been pre-occupied, is all.’
‘Well, if the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…’
‘And here you are.’
The letters in his pocket weighed him down. Surely, all three women must be wondering about the package so conspicuously pressing against his chest, holding his jacket pocket out stiffly over his thumping heart.
‘Alice was just telling us about Teddy’s preparations for Africa.’ Apparently, there was to be no inquisition on the letters.
‘Yes, I have just seen him.’ He hadn’t meant to reveal that, but the memory of their encounter was fresh on his mind, and his conscience.
‘So, the mountain did go to Mohammed, after all…’ There was a glint in Mother’s eye, pleased that he had apparently heeded her words of advice from this morning, ‘Such a shame that I had already invited Alice here with Mrs Marrable.’
‘We must have crossed paths, William. We didn’t see you, did we, Alice?’ Mrs Marrable could tease him quite as well as his own mother.
Alice joined the fray. ‘Perhaps William saw us first, and took evasive action.’
‘I would never…’ He would never avoid Alice, but everyone in the room knew he would happily take an alternative route if it meant avoiding her mother. ‘I took a turn about Forty Acres first. Perhaps that is how we missed each other.’
‘Still, you got to see Teddy before he leaves.’ Was Alice watching him closely as she spoke, or was the burden of his pocket’s contents getting to him again?
‘I did.’ He said as little as possible, but there was an agenda in the air, and he was clearly expected to say more. ‘I didn’t stay long.’
‘Did you speak to him? About Africa?’ Mrs Marrable was anxious.
‘Well, in passing. He seemed quite determined.’
Mrs Marrable sighed with disappointment. ‘We have all tried to dissuade him. I thought for a moment you might bring him to his senses. You are such good friends.’
‘He goes where he is called, Mother.’
William glanced at Alice, surprised to find her such an advocate for her brother’s missionary zeal. ‘Won’t you miss him?’
‘We will all miss him, William. But we can’t burden him with our feelings on the matter. We can’t hold him here against his better judgement. What kind of friend would you be if you did that?’
He had tried to make his excuses, but neither mother was prepared to let this opportunity pass them by. The pretence was made that Mother and Mrs Marrable had important wedding business to discuss and the presence of either of the parties involved would only complicate matters. He and Alice had been instructed to walk together, unchaperoned.
So, here they were, much like old times, wrapped up against the cold, strolling down the Avenue. Alice led the conversation, and seemed anxious to be agreeable, but there was something forced in her manner. She had never been a prattler, but today she prattled, leaving William unable to keep up. Every sentence began with ‘Do you remember…’, as though she were trying to remind herself of their entire courtship, to reinforce the ties that would bind them legally in the Spring.
They strolled past the grand entrance to the Exhibition, choked again with visitors now that it was about to close. It was four months since they’d stood on that same spot for the arrival of the King and Queen, and now it was winding down. Not soon enough, presumably, for those wretched Somalis in their faux village; the Dublin climate in November was a far cry from that of the Horn of Africa.
They had visited the village together; he, Alice and Teddy. The cultural display had been the talk of Dublin and the highlight of the Exhibition, which meant they’d queued for well over an hour in weather that was unimaginable now. The Somali Village was surrounded by a plaster imitation of a high adobe wall; a decorative fortress to protect this corner of Africa transplanted to an Irish city park. Once inside the great wall, the illusion was complete. Here was Somaliland; its inhabitants, its livestock, its buildings, under a sun that barely touched the dark skins of the “exhibits”, but which burnt into the pink necks of the incongruous Dubliners, jostling to gawp at an alien culture.
He should have seen it. The moment that led to everything since. But he had been too busy gawping at the tribal chieftain, wrapped in leopard skin, sat in his throne room surrounded by tall, bold women who might have been servants, but who a bored Irish guide insisted were the chieftain’s wives. Alice had been shocked, and William had teased that she would always be Wife Number One. Teddy’s absence had only been noticed when they had both looked to him to settle the argument.
They had found him, eventually, among the goats on the Somali farm, away from the leopard skins and the spears, examining an elderly man’s swollen arm. A horsefly bite, probably, but it had become infected, and the poor chap was in a miserable state. Teddy, it transpired, cared not whether the chieftain had one wife or six, nor whether polygamy was an appropriate model for the better parts of Dublin Society. What he cared about was the physical and spiritual welfare of the Africans. And from that acorn, that insect bite, everything else had followed. The long nights of tortured self-reflection, the moral discourse with his bewildered family and friends, the letters to the Foreign and Colonial Office, the journey to London and the meetings with the Swedish Overseas Lutheran Church, even the flirtation with the French Catholic Mission, all of it culminating in his commitment to take charge of a new hospital in some God-forsaken corner of the African desert. And in the midst of all that, a reaffirmation of his faith, and a hostile rejection of everything he and William had found together.
‘Do you think their Majesties enjoyed the Exhibition? Princess Victoria seemed quite indifferent, I recall.’ Alice clearly remembered different details from that day.
‘That old man, with the infected insect bite…’
‘Oh, William, that was quite the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. But his baby goats were the dearest things ever, and you wouldn’t buy me one. You got me that ugly little pot instead.’
‘The goats were not for sale. Is that truly all you remember?’
Alice scowled at him, but said nothing.
‘That was when it all began. Teddy’s obsession. That was the moment.’
She still didn’t respond. He reached for her hand, but she pulled it away, and walked on a few paces.
‘I believe he would have embarked tomorrow without a word to me. He is so distant.’ He caught up with her, and she quickened her pace. ‘We were so close, the three of us, and yet…’
‘And yet.’ She turned on him, defiant. ‘Now, we are not so close.’ She turned again, and walked away with a purpose. Away from him.
William strode to regain her side. There was clearly some measure of apology required. ‘I did not mean that you and I were estranged in any way.’
‘And yet we are, William. Where have you been these last few months? Teddy has at least had the excuse of being in London.’
‘I have been preoccupied.’
‘So, you have said. Do you love me?’
Out of nowhere. They had been talking about Teddy, and suddenly a great chasm was opened up. ‘Well, of course, I love you. We are engaged to be married. Will you stop walking at such a pace?’
She dug in her heels, and he overshot by several yards before turning back to face her. The expression on her face was quite shocking. So much so, that he feared for a moment that she was in acute physical pain.
‘Shall we be happy together, William?’
‘We will have a splendid wedding, and a wonderful honeymoon?’
‘Everything you desire.’
‘And will you father them yourself? Or will you spend your evenings with the Molly Boys behind the barracks? I believe there are several establishments in that vicinity that cater to such as you.’
She seemed almost as shocked as him, realising perhaps that she had given no thought as to how her words might ever be unspoken.
He had no response. There was no response that could adequately address the injustice of her accusations, and their fundamental truth. There was no way to dissociate the nature of the accusations from the horrific revelation that she knew his secret. How could she know that carnal relations of that ilk were even possible? How could his Alice know anything of Molly houses and the lusts that were sated there? What could he possibly say that addressed any of these fleeting, competing horrors?
She found her voice before he did. ‘I know it all, William.’
Dear God, how much did she know?
‘My fiancé is a sodomite. I am engaged to be married to a man of depraved habit, a man who would drag my own brother into his sordid den.’
‘You have driven him away.’
‘You and your unnatural perversions. Why do you think he is so determined to run to the other side of the world? To hide his shame from civilised eyes?’
‘You don’t understand.’
‘Oh, I do.’
‘You cannot.’ How could she? How could she possibly understand the honest bond between two men? ‘My affection for Teddy is not what you have called it. I am not that man. I do not frequent those houses. What I feel for him is a thing apart. It does not diminish my feelings for you. I love you, Alice.’
There were tears in her eyes, but no forgiveness. ‘I don’t doubt that you believe it, that this is what you tell yourself. But you do not love me, William. If you love me, why have you never written to me as you write to him?’
The sudden clarity was devastating. She delved into the bag she always carried about her, and pulled out a small bundle of letters in a familiar hand. She selected one, glanced over it briefly, and presented it to him. ‘If you truly love me, how can you write this to him?’
He took the letter. There was little need to read it, but the action gave him a moment to collect his thoughts.
My Dear Teddy, I think I could bear your absence better than this cruel indifference. To have you in Dublin again is nothing if I do not have a place in your heart. I am wretched without you.
If I do not have your love, can I not still retain a place by your side, a place of companionship and fellowship? We have ever been friends, and are soon to be brothers. Write to me, my dear fellow. Call upon me, as you once did. Albeit with a heavy heart, I assure you that I do not seek to rekindle the intimacy which you now find so insufferable. I miss my dear friend, and would have him by my side once more.
Believe that I am ever yours, William
‘It means nothing, Alice.’
‘I have done everything in my power to end this. I have thrust the evidence of your perversion repeatedly before your eyes, and threatened you with exposure. If you had any honest feelings for Teddy, and any respect for me, you would surely have seen that all further intercourse between you and him should cease. And yet, this morning, you call upon him. You still believe, apparently, that you might remain “dear friends”.’
‘You took these letters from Teddy’s room. You tortured me with them.’ He snatched the remaining letters from Alice’s hand. ‘I’m sorry. But this…’ William clenched the letters in his fist, and then thrust them away deep into the pocket of his Ulster. ‘This is an unconscionable betrayal.’
‘You talk to me of betrayal?’
‘You steal into your brother’s room, you rifle through his belongings…’
‘They were lying on his desk.’
‘And what? Having leapt to all the wrong conclusions, you design to blackmail me? Your fiancé?’
‘No. There was no blackmail. I made no demands.’
Her vehemence drew the attention of a young nanny, who glanced at them both as she wheeled her perambulator past them on the other side of the gravel path. What would she think? What had she heard?
Alice must have shared his thoughts. She waited until the nanny was out of earshot. When she spoke again her tone was measured, but there was no disguising the tremulous flutter which lay beneath it. ‘I could not speak to you about your odious proclivities. How could I?’ All the energy, all the anger, was now gone. She looked tired. ‘I thought your own words might bring you greater clarity. Divorced from the sentiment of the moment, you might see them as I saw them. As others would see them. I thought fear of your own exposure might persuade you of the right course of action.’
‘You don’t understand.’
‘I think I do. I am coming to a fuller understanding of who and what you are.’ She seemed to find some confidence, and looked him in the eye. ‘Teddy is broken because of you. Can you not see how you ruin him?’
There was no more rain, but the trees which lined their path continued to shed the morning’s showers, dripping forlornly on their heads and shoulders. ‘I stood down, Alice. If you have read my letters, you know that. I have barely seen him since the Summer.’
‘And this morning?’
He could have dissembled. He could have said that he had called upon her, and only met Teddy by chance. But that would not do. Not anymore. ‘I believed that my letters came from him, that he was the one returning them to me. I could think of no other explanation. My only reason for calling upon Teddy was to understand why he sought to hurt me.’ Perhaps that wasn’t the only reason, but it would have to do. The truth, but not the whole truth.
‘You have given him up?’
‘He is going to Somaliland.’
She shook her head. ‘And what of us, William? You have barely seen me since the Summer either. When he is gone, is there anything left for us?’
‘You are my best pal, Alice.’
‘We are not children, anymore.’ There was a flash of that anger again, but it passed. She had never looked so miserable, nor so beautiful.
‘What would you have me do?’ Whatever it was, he would do it, no matter the hurt. ‘I won’t hold you to our engagement. I release you from it.’
‘How can you say that? On what grounds? How should we explain that to our families? Our friends?’ She was right, of course. ‘We are bound to each other, William, however painful that might be. I will be your wife, and you will be… whatever kind of husband you can.’
He had escorted her home in silence, and then taken a long trek down to the strand at Sandymount. The flat grey sea suited his mood, and he walked with aimless determination, marching as far as Seapoint before taking a moment to actually think. It was getting dark, and he stood for a long while, his back to the Martello tower. Across the bay, the lighthouse flashed in the gloom twice a minute. He was heading for the rocks himself, surely. No lights or sirens in the fog to keep him from disaster. Alice had dragged him onto the point, and time and tide would do the rest, pulling his life apart.
How could they ever be happy together now? After this? He still loved her, but already that was tainted by the memory of the way she’d looked at him. Her harsh words. She certainly felt little love for him; her feelings surely more akin to distaste or revulsion. Could he continue to love someone who despised him? Wasn’t bitterness and resentment a more likely outcome? What a hellish prospect for them both. Yet there was no alternative. Alice was quite right. They couldn’t end the engagement without calling down suspicion and worse.
He turned for home, no longer marching, but walking as if into a stiff breeze, reluctant to hurry, but too cold to stay out long in the dark.
On his return, there was a telegram waiting for him. He ripped it open.
To: Mr William Wyman 23 Hastings Road Ballsbridge
Must speak before depart Somaliland. Campanile at five.
Already, it was five and twenty past. It was a half hour walk to college, but, if he ran, he could be there by twenty to six, perhaps.
Mother had heard him come in, and wanted to know what was so urgent that it required a telegram. He hadn’t had the clarity of mind to come up with a plausible lie, nor the common sense to take the telegram with him. He’d promised an explanation upon his return, and run back out the door and down the steps. He’d bumped into Charlie Hubbard on Northumberland Road, and spent two or three agonising minutes trying to get away. By the time he rounded the library, it was gone quarter to.
Teddy was still there, standing beneath the arch of the Campanile, cupping a cigarette in his hands, and stamping impatiently to keep warm. William pulled up, his chest heaving, and his own hands trembling, whether from the cold, the physical effort, or the anticipation of seeing Teddy.
No-one else could have made him run so far, and so fast. Teddy stood in the shadows; the familiar straight back, the head held erect, the faint glow of the cigarette catching his cheekbones. The relief was more debilitating than the run had been. If he took a moment or two, it was not to catch his breath.
Teddy saw him. He dropped the cigarette, crushed it swiftly underfoot, and strode across the open square, ushering William into the shadow of the library.
‘I’m sorry, Teddy. I didn’t see your telegram until twenty minutes ago.’
‘It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.’
‘I ran.’ A daft thing to say, but he couldn’t help it. ‘You waited.’
‘We couldn’t leave matters as they were.’
‘It broke my heart. Our last words to each other should not be angry.’
He placed a hand on Teddy’s arm, but Teddy pulled away from him. ‘You think I summoned you here to make our peace? William, my boat leaves tomorrow morning. By my calculation, there are at least four, maybe five, of your damned letters still out there, hanging over us both like the sword of Damocles. I can’t postpone my journey, so it falls to you. You will have to make a deal with him.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Doyle. I am sure it’s Doyle. I thought it was one of the maids to begin with, but they’re barely literate. They wouldn’t see the potential value, but Doyle… He sees everything. He knows. And he’s damned clever. 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 A Very Small Pond and A Yellow Scrap of Paper right now.
There’ll be other Readers’ Club Freebies from time to time and maybe another Reading Week for everyone in the Summer.
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.