In this never-before-published short story a young man returns to his family home following the death of his father to claim his inheritance—and finds nothing is quite as expected.
The letter read as follows:
My dearest Will,
If you are reading this it means that I am dead. I do not expect you to weep for me. You are a grown man now and I know you will accept the news of my passing without any unnecessary outpourings, regardless of the differences that have put such distance between us.
At my time of writing our last contact was at your Mother’s funeral, a full ten years ago. I tried to make amends with you then and you would not entertain it, and looking back I do not blame you. They say time heals all, but if we can count on one thing in this life it is that our time will expire before all our injuries are healed. We have not exchanged so much as one civil word since we buried your mother, so what follows may come as quite a shock.
I have given instructions that this letter be handed to you before the contents of my will are revealed. If you have done as specified and headed directly to Guston’s office then the order of news shall proceed as planned. Knowing you as I do, I fear you have ignored my instructions and have gone via the house. You may have already discovered that the family home is no longer that—that is, it is still a home, but it is no longer owned by our family.
A nice fellow by the name of Harrington lives there now with his wife and four children. Be in no doubt, he is the legal owner of the property and the grounds. He very kindly allowed me to continue living there until my death but I agreed to renounce all rights of ownership upon my passing. I make this clear to you in my own hand so you will know it to be the truth and will not pursue this man unfairly.
You are a great success in your own right. I know you do not need the money—and in truth, the estate is more of a drain on the pocket than an asset—but if you feel unjustly treated at this juncture I understand and can only apologise. You are my only son and rightful heir, but in the last few years my financial needs increased at great pace. I had little option but to sell the property and most of my belongings in order to fund my travels and my work.
If only we had been on speaking terms I might have had the chance to explain. As it is, I will leave it to Guston to impart the facts. Do not despair about the loss of the house. I have left behind something of much greater value for you.
William J Lancaster II – 23 April, 1869
I studied the words a moment longer, let my eyes follow the path of Father’s looping signature. If it was a forgery, it was a damn good one.
Guston was sat across from me. I exchanged a glance with him as I set the letter down and thought I identified a note of conspiracy in the nod he sent in my direction. I turned to the man, Harrington, whose ridiculous face went a deep shade of red whenever he was required to speak, and my fists tensed at my sides and I fought the urge to fetch him a punch on the nose. Some decent part of me—perhaps the inherited tendency of my Mother to always choose the more peaceful path—recognised it would be a regrettable move.
Besides, while my valet and translator, Stephen, was sat to my left, this Harrington was a stout and common fellow with large rough hands and I did not think, even with Stephen’s help, I could guarantee the upper hand if we came to blows.
“It appears I owe you an apology,” I said to him.
Having been profoundly deaf since the age of nine, following a most unforgiving bout of scarlet fever, it was impossible for me to determine what level of sincerity my comment conveyed. Stephen often assured me my voice sounded quite proper and normal at all times, and that unless someone were forewarned, they had no idea I could not hear. Of course, I could only take his word for this.
I read Harrington’s lips as he bellowed.
“No. Trouble,” he said, his mouth overly forming each word for my benefit and a blush rising up from his collar. “I understand. Completely. No trouble at all. Your father. He was great man. Very great man. I am sorry for. Your loss.” He offered his hand and I shook it and he bowed and turned to Guston.
“Mr Guston,” he said, “I’m sure you can update Master William on all the legalities. I’m afraid I am at the limits of my patience here and have matters back at the house to attend to, what with it being a Sunday.”
Guston set his head nodding, moved out from behind his desk and, crane-like, stalked over to Harrington, placed a hand on his back, and escorted him to the door.
“Of course, of course. I’ll take care of everything from here …”
The two men turned their back on me and there was a good deal of hand-shaking and back-slapping between them. I shot Stephen a glance and he widened his eyes and shrugged. Guston remained on the threshold, waving a cheerful goodbye until, I imagine, Harrington’s carriage had pulled away, at which point he slammed the door and resumed his position behind the desk.
“What an awful, awful, awful man,” he said, rubbing his hands on the legs of his trousers. “William, I am so very sorry you had to find out this way. So very sorry. It must have all come as a great shock.” He ran a finger up the blade of his nose and nudged his spectacles back into position.
Guston, of Harris, Wills and Guston, had been the family solicitor since before I was born and he looked at me now with a fatherly aspect, the lines of his face arranged into a pattern of concern.
I could not deny it: I was in shock, though more by the apparent claim on the family home than Father’s passing. Just imagine being told your Father is dead, then finding out that, having travelled at great haste all the way from London, having been dropped off by carriage at the end of the long drive leading up to the family home—so that you might take in its full magnificence at a distance—and having fully expected to be handed the keys to said family home, you find an oafish commoner in residence with his four snot-nosed children.
The dreadful fellow had had us wait in the study—Father’s study—while one of his maids ran down to town to wake Guston so that this so-called letter of proof could be produced. On a Sunday morning of all things. The gall of the man!
And this letter? Too convenient by half if you asked me. It might have looked genuine, but such things are easily forged. How strange that something as monumental as the sale of the family home could only be revealed after the fact, and to a deaf man in the written word.
“However did this happen?” I said, meaning how on earth did the family home end up in someone else’s hands. Guston took me to mean how father had passed. I did not want to appear insensitive, so did not correct him.
“I’m afraid your father had a fall, around a month ago,” he said. “He was never quite himself after that.”
A fall? I had heard of such things. Once you were of a certain age even a minor tumble could rattle your nerves to such an extent they never quite settled again. But Father was a squat, round man with a low centre of gravity. I could not imagine him falling, nor imagine something as simple as a fall finishing him off. I pictured him losing his footing now, toppling like a felled giant, the dome of his head cracking against the pavement.
“It must have been quite a tumble,” I said.
Guston winced. “I’m afraid it was. St James’s Hall, from the balcony to the stalls, a good thirty feet or more. He was quite badly injured by all accounts. He was in London for Dickens’ last reading.”
“Good God,” I said. “From the balcony? Thirty feet you say?” Guston nodded.
That Father had been in London, and I had not known, did not surprise me for we had lived entirely separate lives for so long, nevertheless I felt a tug of guilt. Charles Dickens had given his last reading at St James’s Hall on the 15th of March and had died following a stroke only last week. This meant Father had lingered for a month before succumbing to his injuries. How terrible it must have been for him, and how terrible it must have looked that his only son was nowhere to be seen.
“I would have come, if I’d have known. I had no idea,” I said. I turned to Stephen. “Had I, Stephen?”
“Absolutely not,” Stephen confirmed. “We would have come on the first available train.”
“I would have thought I would have read something … in the papers—” I began.
“Ah … no,” said Guston. “It was after the reading, when everyone else had left the hall. He was up on the balcony, retrieving some sort of device. He had no truck with going to hospital, demanded to be taken straight home and, once there, took to his bed. And I’m sorry to say, there he stayed. The doctors were … most kind. I can assure you, he did not suffer.”
The incongruous word caught my attention. “What sort of ‘device’?” I asked.
At this Guston began shifting around, poking at the papers on his desk, picking up things only to put them down again an instant later and turning his head this way and that so it became difficult to read his lips. “Ah,” he said. “Your father had become … quite eccentric … secretive … some time. Half of the year he was out of the country … rarely seen. He insisted … important work”
How infuriating. “Important work?” I said. “What important work is there for a retired man in his eighties, and what on earth was he doing climbing about on balconies?”
Guston’s head shook in agreement and he flapped a hand to signal his wish to move on.
Father’s behaviour was troubling but I was not surprised he had brought about his own demise via some foolish errand. He had always had a reckless streak, would not be swayed toward common sense and, if anything, his behaviour had only worsened in old age. Doubtless this was how he had ended up losing the family home. I took up this matter now for I had sensed, when Harrington was here, that Guston and I had been working as a team and that he knew there was something amiss about this letter. If it were a forgery then perhaps Guston’s intention had been to get the man to make his claim out in the open. And if it were genuine, and Father truly had signed over the deeds, then he must have done so under duress or whilst temporarily insane due to his fading health.
“So, what are we to do about the house, and this blasted letter?”
Guston shrank into his seat. “Ah, yes,” he said. “It is … most regrettable.”
I thought I must have misread his lips. “Say that again.”
“You mean to tell me this is all genuine?” I said, aghast. “You mean to tell me that this man’s claim is legitimate … he owns the house, the grounds, everything?”
“I know it must seem very strange, but I assure you, it is all above board. Your father came to me and asked me to oversee the deal myself. You have my word, it was a fair price.”
“And I dare say a fair old commission!” I countered.
“Oh come now!” Guston recoiled. “Young sir, I did everything I could to talk him out of it. He would hear no argument, his mind was made up and,” he shook a finger at me, “you know as well as anyone, his mind could not be changed once made up.”
“But there is the crux of the issue!” I cried. “His mind must not have been his own. You said he fell a month ago and declined steeply thereafter. He was plainly not himself!”
“Master William, you misunderstand. The sale of the house was arranged a full five years ago. Harrington has been in residence ever since. He let your father stay on in the east wing rent free. Rent free, I tell you! Whatever your father’s later difficulties, I can assure you, he was quite himself when those papers were signed.”
I could not accept this as the truth and began to wonder if Guston and Harrington were united in some sort of plot. As if he had read my mind, Gutson leaned forward, planted his elbows on his desk.
“I know this is an awful thing to find out, today of all days. The truth is, I thought you knew. I thought your Father told you at the time of the sale.”
I could not bear it. “You are telling me there is nothing to be done here?”
Stephen came over and set a consoling hand on my shoulder.
“Your father was a good man,” Guston said. “I am proud to have worked closely with him for many, many years. He was kind and clever, upstanding in every respect. That is the way I shall remember him, and I urge you to do the same.”
We fell silent for a few minutes and I settled into a period of sad reflection, but Guston could not change who, or what, he was and he soon began to surreptitiously eye the clock on the wall.
“Shall we move on to the reading of the will?” I said.
To add to my misery, upon leaving the offices of Harris, Wills and Guston, my valet Stephen informed me that, at some point when my back was turned and I had been unable to read his lips, this chap Harrington had offered us lodgings for the night, up at the house.
“Rather decent of him, don’t you think, sir?” Stephen said. “Given the circumstances.”
“No, Stephen,” I said. “I can’t say I agree.”
It seemed this man Harrington’s rudeness knew no bounds. To offer me a room in a house that was rightfully mine? I’d not thought a human capable of such insensitivity.
“We shall find our own rooms. Thank you.”
We were forced to spend the rest of the afternoon trying to find two adjacent vacant rooms in one of the hotels in the town, a quest that proved quite impossible. In the end, with time running out, we were forced to settle for a cramped one bed above a public house called the Hog’s Head, just off the Dover Road.
We ate an unsatisfactory dinner in the corner of the downstairs bar, fending off wary looks from the locals. I had grown up in that great house on the hill, but had been shipped off to a variety of unkind institutions by my early teens, so though I thought I spied some familiar faces and tried to catch their eye, I was at no point looked on as anything other than a stranger.
I could not recall a more depressing day.
We retired to our room with the stink of smoke and ale following us up the stairs and creeping under the door, and I slumped on the bed face down and lay there until Stephen tapped me on the shoulder.
“Come on, Will,” he said—I was on familiar terms with Stephen in private. “You never know, one day you might actually laugh at all of this.”
It was just like him to try and cheer me up, but on this occasion he was fighting a losing battle.
“Laugh?” I said. “I fail to see what’s so funny about losing my family home and all my family’s possessions. If your family had anything to lose, you might feel the same.”
It was an entirely unnecessary assault, and I knew it, but I’d said much worse to him in the past and knew he wouldn’t take it to heart.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” he said. “Tell me, do you have enough money?”
“And you have enough friends?”
“And you love your home in London?”
“Of course I do.”
“Well there you go. Your home is in London, not here in the country. What would you have done with a great big house like that anyway? Besides, there’s nothing can be done now. You said yourself, your father sold the place years ago and you have lived perfectly happily in blissful ignorance for all this time.”
“Precisely,” I said. “It was the family home, but Father sold it off. I should have been consulted. I should have been informed.”
I knew what he was going to say before he said it, and I hated him for it.
“Perhaps if you weren’t so stubborn, you would have been.”
He was quite right. Father had made numerous attempts to bridge the chasm that had opened between us, and each time, upon receiving his letter or telegram, I would take a certain pleasure in refusing him, always thinking that I would wait until the next time, so he would feel doubly worse and I would feel doubly generous when I finally came round to accepting his apologies.
So yes, Stephen was right, but it was not his place to state the obvious. I felt a flush of anger and determined not to speak to him for the rest of the evening, but, as is my habit, I grew bored quickly and longed for him to break the silence. He knew as much and kept me waiting for almost an hour, until the box that Guston had given me caught his eye.
The box sat on the dresser, an envelope resting on top of it. As preposterous as it seemed, the envelope was the only thing Father had left me. Guston had retrieved the box from Father’s room after his death and had solemnly handed it over with the words: “I think he would have wanted you to have this.”
I considered both items worth only a cursory glance, which was all I had given them. Stephen went up to the box and opened it and peered at the contents and pulled a face. He reached in and removed the large glass bottle, which had no label but had a rubber stopper in the top and a hand-written tag tied around the neck.
He held it to the candlelight, shook it gently.
“An empty bottle,” he said and he turned the tag towards him and tilted his head and read the looping script aloud: “Charles Dickens. St James’ Hall, London. One five, oh four, seven nine.”
“Father had that bottle by his bedside for the last month, wouldn’t let it out of his sight. That’ll be the date he fell at Dickens’ last reading.”
“Then perhaps it was Dickens’ bottle?” said Stephen. “A souvenir from the great man himself? I suppose it could be worth something to somebody? A gullible American, perhaps?”
“Nonsense,” I said. “Even if it were Dickens’ bottle, there is no way to prove it is. Anyone could put a label on something and say it belonged to somebody of note. It is entirely worthless. Even if its provenance could be proved, I doubt anyone would be in the slightest bit interested in it.”
Stephen set the bottle back in its box and lifted up the envelope in its place.
I had already opened the envelope and checked its contents and now Stephen emptied the key on to his hand, and brought it over and came and sat by me on the edge of the bed.
“What do you think?” he said. “A run down cottage perhaps? That might not be too bad. Might be quite nice, even.”
“Ha!” I said, loudly and entirely for effect. “No such luck. Guston was quite clear. The building is only on hire. It’s the contents that are mine. I’ve to take them back to London with me at the earliest opportunity and return the key, or else take on the rent of the place. It’s father’s ‘collection’. That’s what the will said. ‘I leave to my only son my entire collection’.”
“Well, what sort of collection?”
“It didn’t say. I can’t recall Father collecting anything. It must have been a recent obsession of his.”
“Whisky? Wine?” said Stephen, hopefully.
“Not likely. He didn’t drink. Would hardly have known the difference between the two. No, whatever it is he travelled widely to collect it and in the end it cost him the house—but it can fit into a shack on the edges of town.”
“Well if he spent years travelling around the world, collecting whatever it is, then whatever it is must be worth something, yes?”
Stephen had been my valet for most of the last decade but sometimes it was as if he were the deaf one, as if he had not heard any of the thousand or so stories I had told him about Father, whose very mission in life was to involve himself in folly after folly.
“You know what it will be?” I said. “Curios. Ghastly stuffed animals. Old carpets from Turkey. Masks from Timbuktu. Tribal carvings, that sort of thing. I might dare to be excited if it weren’t for the fact Father had such dreadful taste in decor.”
Stephen laughed out loud and I couldn’t help but join him.
It would be wrong to say I had been happy that morning. Not even a son as estranged as I could take as much as an ounce of pleasure in their Father’s passing—but still, beneath the sadness, I had felt a distinct throb of excitement. The family home was going to be mine. The great house, the grounds, the contents … everything that had been taken away from me after I had lost my hearing and been sent away, would now be mine. I wondered whether I could have afforded to keep all the staff on—probably not—and how it might feel walking down the long gallery with the sunlight streaming in through the windows. I’d have to sell the place, of course—I’d have been a fool not to—but perhaps for just one summer, or even two, I could have pretended. I could have lived the life of a country gentleman. Stephen and I could have thrown some fabulous parties and really given the locals something to gossip about.
Not that any of that mattered now.
Tomorrow I would meet Guston at an agreed location on the edge of town and I would face the horror of Father’s collection. I almost hoped it had been destroyed in some accident or other so I would not have contend with it; that I might arrive on the scene and find nothing but smokey remains. At least then it would not cost a fortune to have it all shipped back to London.
I undressed and Stephen took my clothes from me and folded them away and I got into bed whilst Stephen began to arrange his blankets on the floor.
“You can get in if you like,” I told him, “but if you start snoring again, you’ll be back on the floor.”
He stood, nodded in appreciation of both the offer to share the bed and my little joke, then said: “You needn’t be so mean. You know I only snore after drinking heavily, and tonight,” he picked up Dickens’ bottle and upended it and held the stopper to his lips, then looked down as if shocked to find the bottle empty.
“Hic! I’ve have hardly touched a drop!” He swayed left and right and fell backwards across the bed, let the bottle roll out of his hand as if he were an old drunk and I caught it just before it fell to the floor and set it upright on the bedside table.
The official reason Stephen did not accompany me the following day was that since we were required to stay in the town for at least another night his time would be best spent searching for two adjacent and available rooms in one of the more up-market local hotels. Guston, having known me most of my life, was well used to my reading his lips, so we would experience no difficulties or discomfort there.
Stephen protested, of course. “What if something untoward happens? What if you need me?” I told him I had managed perfectly well without him for most of my life and, though it would pain me so, I would cope for a few hours more without his dazzling company.
The real reason I diverted his attentions so, was that I desperately wanted to reclaim the inner-peace one can only achieve in isolation. This applies as much to the deaf as those who can hear perfectly, and in some cases even more so. In company I am required to rely on visual clues to know when I am being spoken to, so need to remain extra vigilant, whereas when I am alone I am free to concentrate on whatsoever I choose. I meandered slowly to my rendezvous with Guston, free to take in all the wonders the local habitat had to offer.
In the city I was quick to pour scorn on the countryside—the people and their backward ways—but out wandering the hills I felt the tug of home in the soles of my feet. Perhaps a part of me wanted to make peace with my childhood, and peace with my birthplace. Now the house was gone, and Father with it, it seemed unlikely I ever would. I mourned the passing of this secret part of me and by the time I reached the cross-roads, the former family home visible on the other side of the hill, I had manufactured an inner calm that I knew would be needed to get me through the next few hours.
Guston had parked his carriage by the crossroads and fastened his horse to a post besides a drinking trough. I spied first the horse, alternately lapping at the water and twisting its head to dry its snout, and then Guston himself, sat on a low bench, smoking a cheroot and swatting at flies with his free hand.
“William,” he said, getting to his feet, putting an arm around my shoulders. “Wherever is your valet? And your carriage for that matter?”
“I walked. To clear my mind. Besides, I thought I would rather face this on my own.”
He lowered his head and muttered something, then looked at me and repeated himself. “I said, ‘perhaps for the best’. This is a family matter, after all. Delicate stuff.”
We sat together on the bench and without delay he set out the issue of Father’s collection.
That his own words gave him cause for discomfort was quite clear and I, the bereaved, was forced to console him on several occasions, for the plain truth was Father’s decline had not started after his fall. If Guston were to be believed, Father had been losing his mind for many years.
Guston began with the day Father had asked him to arrange the sale of the house and grounds.
“I don’t mind telling you,” he said, “we argued a great deal about it, and at one point I outright refused, but I feared someone truly dishonest might take my place and take advantage of the situation. I told your Father I would offer my services only if he were completely honest with me. He must reveal the true reason he needed access to funds of such volume, so I might see if some other option were available. After much cajoling, he relented, and I went up to the house under the cover of darkness and after giving my word I would not disclose details of what he showed me to any other living person, he showed me what was to become his ‘collection’. I shall never forget that day. The realisation that an old friend was … ”
At this point Guston broke down and we had to pause until he had regained his composure. It can be difficult reading lips at the best of times and it becomes near impossible if someone is racked with emotion. Their entire face begins to twist and contort and the mouth makes unusual and unidentifiable shapes. A full five minutes later he was able to resume.
“He had been conned. That is what I believe had happened. Someone had used his love for you against him. They had shown him a dream that could never be achieved, and by some misguided notion, he had got it into his head that he might redeem himself in your eyes if he could leave something for future generations.
“He had been led to believe that it was possible to capture a sound, and save it for later release, as one might capture a fly in one’s hands,” he cupped his hands in front of him, “so you might carry it outside and—” then opened them, “—release it. He claimed a man in Istanbul had sold him the cry of a parakeet and that he had carried this cry around with him for a month before accidentally releasing it in an otherwise unoccupied room. The sound of the parakeet sang forth, when there was no parakeet anywhere near. It was nothing but a wicked piece of trickery, of course, but your father was captivated by the idea. He had a thought, he told me: What if my William were one day cured and his hearing returned? Think of the sounds he would have missed! What if a sound really could be captured? Great speeches, musical performances, the voices of one’s ancestors, could be saved for future generations. Your Father envisaged a museum of sound. Exhibits stretching back through the ages. So he sought out the man who had sold him the cry of the parakeet and begged to be told the secret, and the man told him he would give him the secret, for a price.”
I was torn in many directions: appalled that I had somehow contributed to my Father’s madness; angry that he had been tricked; saddened that he had been so foolish. And then, curiously, I felt relieved ,for it did not sound as much of a fools errand as I had feared.
“It is … not such as insane idea, I think?” I said. “Impossible, I’m quite sure … but a noble endeavour and should an inventor of great ability set his mind to it?”
“Oh yes,” Guston said. “I have no doubt. One day, in a five hundred years, we might be able to consider such a thing. Hear a sound, capture it via some device or other and release it at a later date. That is not the issue here. The issue is that your father believed he could do this now.”
“The device,” I said, remembering Father had fallen whilst trying to retrieve a device after Dickens’ last reading. I supposed, if one were trying to capture such a performance, it might make sense to position your mechanism up on the balcony, to best capture the projected voice. And Dickens’ last reading! To preserve that for future generations … why, that would be a great thing indeed.
Was it completely impossible that Father had uncovered something remarkable?
“Do not get your hopes up, lad,” said Guston. “Your father made no great discoveries. He worked with no great inventors either. His sound capturing device? It was nothing more … nothing more than a bottle. A common glass bottle. He insisted, that if angled correctly, one could capture a period of sound within a bottle, and by stoppering promptly, preserve the sound so it might be unleashed at a later date. Do you see? Madness. Complete madness.”
It was the logic of a child. A bottle can be used to hold a liquid, so why not a sound? Why not ‘fill’ a bottle with an amount of sound and put a stopper in it? At some later date, sit back in your chair, remove the stopper and hear the words of Charles Dickens pouring forth as if you had been present on the very night he spoke them! Never mind that you could no more capture sound in a bottle than you could sunlight. Guston was right. It was madness.
“How is this possible,” I cried. “Father was an intelligent man. Surely he realised, upon opening one of these bottles and hearing nothing, that he had been fooled?”
“Ah,” said Guston, “but once a sound is released, it is gone forever. The truest sign of your father’s madness was that he refused to disprove his own theory, insisting that it would be criminal to waste a single second of sound that might prove important in the future. I tried to prove the futility of his actions. I took a bottle and spoke into it, stoppered it, then waited a minute before releasing the sound. Of course, no sound emerged.”
“And faced with such proof?”
“He told me I had not given proper attention to the details. I had not angled the bottle in the proper fashion, not placed the stopper in quickly enough, other such things. Clearly he was already at an advanced stage of delusion. And you have not heard the worst of it.”
“I have not?”
“The man who had tricked him in Istanbul was wise to your father’s efforts and began to make outrageous claims about sounds, some that had been collected years before, that he could procure.”
“All at a price I expect.”
“Precisely.” Once more Guston broke down, lowering his head into his hands and began weeping.
I completed the story, for it seemed quite obvious to me what had happened next.
“So, Father came to believe that he could catch sound in a bottle and began travelling around the world recording all sorts, collecting for his sound museum. Much of his financial reserves would have been spent funding his lifestyle abroad. Additionally, this wicked conman gets in touch every few months, claims he has found some priceless sound and Father can’t wait to get hold of it for his collection so pays handsomely—but of course, can never verify the contents. A month ago Father travelled to London to bottle the last reading of Dickens and he fell retrieving his ‘sound capturing device’ from the balcony.”
Guston had gone quite pale.
“Never have I seen such a decline!” he wailed and he continued weeping for a short while. When he was done he stood and turned away from me and wiped his eyes and when he turned back he had fixed a stern expression on his face.
“There,” he said. “Now you know the truth. Your Father was suffering from a madness. I did all I could. I tried to convince him not to sell the house and I tried to explain to him that he was quite mistaken in his beliefs. There was nothing more I could do. Your inheritance is gone and all that is left is the result of a madman’s folly.”
I took his hand and shook it firmly. I believed he had had my Father’s best interests at heart and had done what he could and that his sorrow was genuine.
The letter was real and the house was most certainly lost to me.
I thanked Guston and his parting gesture was to point me in the direction of the home of Father’s collection before climbing up onto his carriage and, with a crack of his whip, geeing his horse back in the direction in town.
I arrived back at the Hog’s Head a full three hours later in something of a daze. I must have looked quite a sight for when I pushed open the door to our room and Stephen set eyes on me he rushed over in a panic.
“My God!” he said. “Where have you been? I was worried sick. What on earth has happened?” He began brushing at my clothes. “You have … what is this? You have broken glass in your hair. All over you. And you are bleeding.”
I was in a daze, as dumb as I was deaf, and Stephen’s first act was to race downstairs and return with a stiff brandy for me. Next he ran me a bath and undressed me and I had a long soak for a good hour or more before my powers of speech returned. I had suffered numerous cuts to my hands and face and the bathwater soon turned a light pink. I felt entirely numb, could not bear to tell Stephen the grizzly details.
It took three more brandys before I could summon the strength to tell him what Guston had told me and then go on to explain what had happened with Father’s collection.
“It was stored in a little cottage, at the end of a long dirt track road that, as far as I could see, ended a good mile or so away from any other house. Inside, the two rooms had been entirely emptied then filled from floor to ceiling and wall to wall with wooden shelving. The sun filtered through the dust covered windows, glinted off the shoulders of the bottles. It was quite beautiful. There were thousands of them, all different sizes, filed away carefully on the shelves, and at points, there were pedestals with engraved brass plates explaining that this or that bottle was especially important.
“I read the little plaque on the nearest pedestal. I was apparently looking at the captured sound of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, captured in Pittsburgh seven years earlier. I tell you, I felt sick at the thought of Father, over in America, setting up his ‘device’. How foolish everyone must have thought him. A fat old English fool, travelling the world, his insanity on display for all to see.
“I put the bottle down carefully, but then got to thinking, why take any care at all? The bottles contained nothing but stale air. Nothing would be lost by their destruction. I snatched up the Gettysburg Address, held it between my fingertips for a moment, then … let it drop. The bottle hit the floor and broke into a million pieces. The sight of it delighted me. I grabbed another two bottles—Lincoln’s inaugural address of 1861 and a speech by Benjamin Disraeli—and threw them across the room.”
“Such anger,” said Stephen, blinking at me. “I had not thought you capable of it.”
“I suppose I felt embarrassed, angry at myself for having been so stubborn for so long. I should have been the better person but took pleasure in denying Father year after year. I was furious at myself. Once I had broken one bottle I felt the urge to destroy another, and another. The museum had been categorised with little labels on the edge of the shelves: speeches, people, cultures, animals, countries, music, so on and so on. I noticed some bottles were labelled in a strange hand and realised they must have been bought by Father from his contact in Istanbul. Not all of the sounds were recent. There were performances by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin. I destroyed them all in the blink of an eye. Next came a shelf composed entirely of the calls of animals. I started by destroying the call of a passenger pigeon, captured in Ontario, followed it with the roar of jaguar from Paraguay. The calls of exotic birds, the trumpeting of elephants, the bark of a Falklands wolf, they all went the same way. I found a broom leaning in a corner and set about the shelves with purpose, until not one bottle remained in tact. Glass went everywhere. I was traipsing through piles of it by the end.”
Upon telling this to Stephen I was gripped by the awful feeling that my actions sounded like those of a madman. The sensible thing to do would have been to, once confirming the contents of the cottage, leave the scene instantly and inform Guston to have the lot disposed of. Instead I had experienced a moment of insanity. What if, like Father, I had the capacity for madness in me? Didn’t some say madness was hereditary? I wondered if Stephen was looking at me now and fearing that some part of my brain was corrupted.
Stephen, kindly Stephen, did not judge me.
“Do you feel better now,” he said, “having smashed all of those bottles?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think so. Yes, I think I do.”
Bless him, he bathed a cut on my brow and pulled a slither of glass from my hand and he said, “Then that is all that matters.”
Had I been with anyone else other than Stephen, I might have thought that I was losing my mind, given what followed, or that some horrid trick were being played on me. But Stephen had no reason to try and fool me. If anything the awful events of the weekend had proved his unending trust in me and in turn had made me trust him more. My esteem for him had never been higher.
He had found another hotel for us to stay in. The Grand, down in the valley, was the best the town had to offer, which meant it was hardly deserving of its name but it would at least be a improvement over the Hog’s Head.
We would stay in The Grand for one more night and in the morning I would see Guston, attend to the last of Father’s papers, and we would soon be heading back to London. Back to civilisation.
We had already paid for a second night at the Hog’s Head but I told Stephen we would move anyway and to hell with cost. We had earned a night of comfort.
Stephen folded my clothes away into my trunk and we readied ourselves to move to our new rooms. With our belongings packed he called for the landlord and between them they carried the trunk downstairs in order that everything might be loaded onto a carriage.
I noticed that Dickens’ bottle was sat on the bedside table, where we had left it. I took it up, felt its weight, wanted very much to destroy it there and then, but knew it would be unfair on whoever had to clean up the mess. Instead I simply released the stopper and slipped the label from the neck and tore it in two and pocketed the remains and set the bottle back down on the bedside table. Perhaps the bar downstairs could make use of it in some way.
I had not heard Stephen enter the room and was quite startled upon turning to find him there, stood right behind me. It was his habit to touch me lightly on the elbow whenever approaching from the rear, so as not startle me, but now he simply stood, looking quite foolish, at the doorway, with his mouth hanging low and his big brown eyes open wide, his gaze directed to the bedside.
“What is it?” I asked him. His expression was quite ridiculous and I could not help but laugh. “Stephen, whatever is the matter?” Something must have happened downstairs: the horse bolting with our belongings on board or one of the locals taking exception to Stephen in some way.
His expression being frozen I suddenly feared that, while he was clearly not speaking, he was emitting some note of distress that I could not hear.
“Stephen, tell me what is the matter!” I all but shouted at him.
He looked to me and then back to the bedside, and I followed his gaze to the empty bottle.
I moved toward him but he stepped around me and walked over to the bed and sat upon it in front of the bottle, as if he were hypnotised.
“Stephen,” I cried. “You tell me what is going on, right this instant! Tell me right now!”
He would not take his eyes from that blasted bottle. I saw he was gently weeping and his hands were shaking and I went and knelt before him.
Panic coursed through me. It appeared that he was suffering some sort of seizure.
I set my hands on top of his and I said his name and feared that this episode had been brought on by the strain of the weekend. But then I saw his lips begin to move and I began to read the words he was unknowingly mouthing: .age of foolishness… epoch of belief… the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, and I knew them, and I knew the impossible had happened and I knew I had done a most terrible thing.
© Paul Cunliffe, 2014