Why hello there… fancy meeting you here… LOL kidding… I know and <3 y’all. I had to post a music video… uta kata is the best of Kagrra. 🙂 It deserves it’s own post! 😁 Today is wash day for me. Sooo.. gotta find my laundry and bring down my blanket and yeah… I want to share a fic with you. It’s called T’is You Must Go & I Abide. The story is here but I c/p it here for convenience. Warning! Get out the Kleenex.
Though the leaves on the trees were only faintly tinged russet and gold at their edges, the sun sinking ever-lower beyond the western horizon and the bracing chill in the autumn air sent everyone who could do so hurrying indoors. Charles was sullenly grateful to be spared the necessity of more than the occasional touch of his hat brim as he rushed along the high street, heavy overcoat and woollen scarf drawn tightly around himself. He’d been feeling inexplicably melancholy for the past three weeks, and neither the weather nor his errand was doing anything to improve his mood.
The thick packet of legal documents shifted in his inner pocket. It was so typical of a blustering man like the Squire, used to having his way in all things, to demand these new land deeds be delivered at once under the pretence that they were urgent simply because he’s suddenly recollected they wanted updating. The busy Monday schedule of his solicitors and the inconvenience of their overworked clerk were nothing to him. Which was why Charles was trudging up the hill toward The Lodge, nose and ears stinging from the biting cold, rather than sitting down to a cup of steaming tea and a plate of scones with jam in front of a snug fire.
Slouching further into his collar, he turned at the gravel lane that skirted along the churchyard. The spires of the aged edifice loomed up through the pine branches on his right, and over the stone wall, weather-stained tombstones poked out of the dull brown lawn. To his left stood more graves: older stones covered with grey-green lichens. Some so old that the engravings could barely be read, others toppled over by ruffian boys or errant tree roots.
Long ago, the cemetery, church grounds, and vicarage had all been part of a single large parcel of land that had been bequeathed by a Baronet to a younger son in holy orders. Misfortunes had befallen the family, however, and over time the property had been apportioned, various plots sold for the building of cottages and shops as the village grew into a town. Somehow or other during all of the redrawing of property lines, part of the church lawn had been fenced in and the footpath that once cut through it had been turned into something like a proper road, leaving the older markers separated on the opposite side. Charles had never paid much attention to that section as he had no ancestors buried there. It was simply a familiar but unheeded part of the landscape, fading into the background.
That particular day, however, it ceased to fade. From the shadow-dappled corner along the remnants of the hedgerow, a soft whistling emerged. A low mournful tune that tickled at the back of Charles’ neck, rousing the memory of haunting bagpipes’ call. As funeral dirges went, one might have justly described it as inadequate, performed by a single whistler who tended to stray from the correct pitch rather frequently, yet the sound filled Charles with an unfathomable sorrow.
A cheerless task fitting the dreary day, he thought with a sigh.
Moving past a pair of heavy stone crosses, Charles perceived two sets of wide, slightly hunched shoulders bobbing up and down. A couple of workmen wielding spades slowly moved heaps of dark earth back into what was obviously a newly-dug grave. A painful lump formed in Charles’ throat, and the corners of his eyes began to sting, though he had no notion why. A death, any death, was sad of course, but it wasn’t as if he had known whoever this person was.
Despite the alleged urgency of the Squire’s mandate, Charles turned off the lane onto the unclipped grass, peering over the crooked rows of headstones toward the freshly turned earth. The hole had been dug right next to the shrubbery: a tangle of wild gorse and creamy-white Scots roses. The roses must have been gloriously beautiful once, when they’d been newly planted and the property-owner rich enough to employ gardeners to keep them well pruned. But the hedge had been left untended for years, spiny boughs twisting back onto themselves in a claustrophobic chokehold with long thorny canes jutting out at random intervals like the tentacles of some ravenous monster. The two unlucky workmen did their best to evade capture, but now and then a spine would catch on a sleeve or trouser leg, showering the area with gold and white petals as he jerked himself free.
Charles drew nearer still, removing his hat reverentially as he did. His pulse had begun to thunder in his ears, and a leaden weight seemed to settle in the pit of his stomach, his eyes riveted to the mound of dirt.
“Right shame,” one of the workmen remarked around the stem of his unlit pipe.
The other man paused his whistling long enough to give an “ar” of agreement and leaned on the handle of his spade, staring thoughtfully at the ground.
“Lad like tha’ in th’ prime o’ life,” the first continued, “An’ not a soul ‘as come t’ mourn ‘im. S’indecent. Ow, dammit!” he exclaimed abruptly, jerking his hand back from the brambles with a pained cry.
The whistling man drew breath as if to say something, then noticed Charles standing off to one side. He gave his companion a nudge.
“Oy, don’ go cursin’ in a kirkyard,” he chastised softly, then doffed his cap to the young man. “Ev’nin’, Sir,” he said in a gruff respectful tone. “We’m just finishin’ up. Do ‘scuse us. C’mon, Ted.”
Charles gave a nod and wry smile. Naturally they’d taken him for a mourner come late to the funeral. And though he was tempted to correct this misconception, he really could think of no alternate justification for his presence, so he held his tongue. The man called Ted gave a grunt and bent to retrieve the small wooden cross that would serve as a grave marker; he tamped into the ground with a few stout whacks of the spade handle.
Their task completed both men shuffled toward the road, leaving Charles alone with the deceased. He stood gazing at the pathetic little cross, hesitating. He was in a hurry; the Squire would be apoplectic by the time he arrived at The Lodge, he was sure. Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to leave.
Not a soul come to mourn him.
Ted had been right. It was indecent for a person to die utterly un-mourned. Shameful. Charles moved closer to the grave, his heart pounding with the injustice of it all, and dropped to one knee so that he could read the brief epitaph painted there.
John Simpson Greene
22 March 1792 – 1 September 1813
Twenty one years old. Less than five months younger than Charles himself. Dead.
A tightness squeezed at Charles’ heart. The lump in his throat grew, making it difficult to swallow. Or breathe. Tears coursed unnoticed down his face, even as the black paint of the name that captivated his attention blurred.
Charles had never known a John Simpson Greene, but he knew with absolute certainty, to the core of his very being that John should not have died. John should not be lying in the cold damp earth. Most of all, John should not have been left alone or unloved. He had deserved infinitely better than that, and Charles had deserved the chance to meet him.
“I’m so sorry,” he murmured, reaching out a trembling hand to trace the initial J. “So sorry it came to this, John.”
He didn’t call the deceased Mr. Greene as perhaps he ought to have done, given that they were complete strangers. But the ache that filled Charles’ soul at the loss of this young man, whoever he was, was so vivid, so poignant, that addressing him any less intimately than by his Christian name seemed offensive.
A sharp wind picked up, causing the entwined canes of the bushes to creek and sway and rain down their delicate blossoms upon the freshly turned soil.
The roses and I will weep for you, he thought. Even if no one else cares.
The church bell had begun to toll, alerting everyone that evensong would soon begin. Charles fumbled for his handkerchief, wiped his eyes as best he could, and stumbled to his feet.
“I have to go for now,” he told the silent wooden marker. “But… don’t… I’ll… just for now.”
He sped off, not having the least idea what he’d just promised or why or to whom.
The Squire was enraged to have been kept waiting so very long, and from the telling off Charles received at both The Lodge and the law office, he was lucky to have come through the ordeal still employed. The rest of that week, he made a concerted effort to be at his desk already scribbling away at something as the partners arrived in the mornings and still diligently filing and organizing the day’s documentation when they left for the night. Not because he enjoyed his work as a clerk particularly, but because his landlord would toss him out with a flea in his ear if he couldn’t pay his rent on time.
The volume of work ought to have been more than enough to occupy the whole of his mind; yet Charles frequently found his thoughts drifting, swept away on a tide of his own hopelessness and isolation. Everything seemed so bleak. As if there wasn’t a soul in the world who understood or cared. And whenever that happened, his eyes would wander toward the hazy view of the church steeple protruding through the sea of rooftops. His mind echoed with the name of another lonely young man, a name that even a week later still brought tightness to his chest and mist to his eyes when he recalled it: John Simpson Greene.
Who had John been? What had he been? Dead the first of September, yet not buried until the twentieth. It was strange. Why had the funeral been delayed so? Not for the convenience of any surviving family members, that was certain. Charles marvelled at the hostility in that thought; in truth, he didn’t even know if John had any surviving relatives. Perhaps he’d been the very last of the Greenes. Orphaned at an early age. Charles wondered and speculated and made up stories in his head then discarded them when they became too tragically romantic. But he never felt quite satisfied with these mere guesses. He wanted to know.
He picked through the discarded newspapers that had been brought to the office, meticulously combing through every obituary column and death notice printed since the first of the month. It was only a slight chance considering no one had attended the burial, but he clutched at the hope that perhaps a solicitor had published something in order to alert long-separated kin.
Those hopes were dashed. Not a single line of text about John appeared in any of the periodicals taken by Messrs Kensington, Croft, and Fordham. Over his lunch, Charles went to the newsagent’s and the circulating library to view a wider array of publications. Still nothing. Frustrated by this dead end, Charles debated whether it might not be wiser to simply forget the entire matter and move on. According to his pocket watch, the consideration lasted exactly one minute and twenty-seven seconds of acute misery.
Very well, if no source of public news could provide him with what he wanted to know, he’d seek out private sources. Individuals. The morning after Michaelmas, Charles carefully wrapped his scarf around his throat, tugged on his overcoat, and trudged toward the church to speak with the vicar. Someone had been buried in his churchyard; surely that man would be in possession of some of the facts.
Charles found the vicar, a white-haired fellow with a heavy drooping jowl, discussing with a cluster of older ladies the removal of some of the overabundant floral decorations from the sanctuary’s front altar. Charles waited until the particulars had been settled before gently clearing his throat to make his presence known.
“Oh, good morning,” the vicar said.
His voice was a thin, reedy one, quite incongruous with his stout appearance.
“Good morning,” Charles returned politely. “I’m sorry to trouble you, but I wondered if you might be able to provide me with a bit of information about someone who was recently buried in your church yard: a John Simpson Greene.”
The vicar stared vaguely over the top of his spectacles.
“Recently buried? Let me see. John… oh yes, I recollect. Certainly. Were you an acquaintance of that young man?”
Charles hesitated. It felt especially sinful to be lying to a member of the cloth inside a church building. Still, he wasn’t prepared to admit that his motive was nothing more than persistent curiosity.
“I may have done,” he dissembled. “I knew a John a long ago; we were at school together for a time, but I’m afraid I lost touch with him and… so I’m not sure….”
He let his voice trail off. The vicar nodded, the unspoken implications of Charles’s unfinished sentence clear.
“Yes indeed, one does lose touch with so many people from one’s youth,” he commiserated, wiping the lenses of his spectacles on a handkerchief, “Particularly in this day and age with everyone flocking to the metropolises.”
He expounded on this theme for several minutes while Charles did his best to bury his impatience behind a mask of interest.
“Now then, where was I?” the vicar interrupted himself. “Yes, yes, young Mr. Greene. I fear my knowledge is minimal, as I was never personally acquainted with him. I gather that his family left this parish about a year before I came here. That would have been… oh, let me see…”
He counted on his fingers and muttered to himself about various ordinations.
“Ten years ago now. No. Eleven.”
“Was it his mother who made the funeral arrangements?” Charles enquired.
“Mother? No, I was given to understand that both of his parents had predeceased him, poor soul. The arrangements, minimal as they were,” the old man gave a sniff of disapprobation, “Were made by an aunt I believe: Mrs. Elspeth Smith she called herself.”
“John… might have mentioned an Aunt Elspeth,” said Charles dubiously, “Though perhaps it was Ellen. Does Mrs. Smith live here in town?”
“In a cottage just north of Market Street,” the vicar clucked his tongue. “She did not attend the service, which I found most irregular.”
Charles could think of several less charitable adjective that might be used, but made the observation that:
“Perhaps some illness prevented it. Can you tell me how John died?”
“Consumption, l believe,” replied the vicar with a sad expression on his face, “As with so many of our impoverished parishioners. Why in the past two years alone, we’ve lost….”
There followed another lengthy discourse about the abysmal state of the health of the working poor, and while Charles outwardly agreed that yes, indeed it really was most disgraceful, inwardly his mind was screaming for news of John.
“Well, thank you very much for the information,” Charles interjected when the old man finally paused to clear his throat. “I’m most grateful. I hope my visiting John’s grave before I leave won’t be inconvenient.”
“Certainly not, my child. Of course you may come to pay your respects to your friend whenever you feel so inclined.”
Charles shook the vicar’s hand and hastened toward the door.
“Poor young man,” murmured the vicar to himself. “Always such a shame to learn that an old friend has passed away. And one so young….”
Charles hurried down the walk toward the gate, his sense of urgency increasing with each step. Now that he knew of the existence of this absentee aunt, he felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for having not yet returned to John’s gravesite.
An irrational sense, perhaps. After all, would John, who was dead, know the difference?
Yes, Charles thought somehow that he would. Besides in giving his word, he’d bound himself, whether the recipient of the promise understood it or not. Not that he had given his word… exactly. “Just for now” was the phrase he’d used at his departure. While a return was certainly implied, it wasn’t explicitly stated. Nor had any timeframe been specified.
His conscience needled him all the more for having such thoughts.
You gave John your word, and you should be ashamed of yourself for neglecting him.
He leaned against the one of the tall stone pillars to catch his breath as he surveyed the simple whitewashed cross. Very little had changed since the last time he’d seen John’s grave, except for the few blades of grass beginning to regrow. The branches of the hedgerow bowed their heads reverently over John, dappling the dark loam with velvety white and amber yellow. It looked like a richly embroidered blanket. That idea appealed to Charles for some reason.
“You look quite lovely today, John,” he murmured.
Charles’ cheeks heated as he realized what he’d just said. He moved closer, settling into a low crouch near the John’s resting place, and allowed the peaceful silence to soothe away some of the discontentment that had been growing within him.
Charles glanced down at the slip of paper one final time before giving the tarnished brass knocker a hard rap. Based on the name and street provided by the vicar and an astute eye cast surreptitiously over a few client ledgers during the next two weeks’ drudgery, he was fairly certain he’d found the correct address. He hoped he had; the last thing he wanted to do was go knocking at every door along the street until he found the proper one.
Several long moments passed before a shabby parlour maid with a dirty apron and a smudge of something on the tip of her nose peaked out around the door.
“Good afternoon. Is Mrs. Smith at home?” he asked.
“Couldn’ say, I’m sure,” she replied, eyeing him warily.
From somewhere down the corridor behind her, a shrill voice called out:
“Agnes! Close that door at once. D’you intend to kill me, letting in that draft.”
Charles gave young Agnes a sympathetic smile.
“This is Mrs. Smith’s residence, is it not? Would you be good enough to ask her if she’d be willing to see Mr. Charles Turner of the Kensington law office? It’s regarding her late nephew.”
The girls eyes went wide, then she bobbed a curtsey and, to Charles’ shock, shut the door in his face.
Was that a ‘no’?
Charles stood indecisively on the front stoop, wondering exactly how to interpret this reaction, but just as he was concluding that perhaps he ought to leave and try to gain an audience with Mrs. Smith by means of a letter instead, the door swung open wide, and Agnes vigorously gestured him in.
“Come on, come on,” she bade him with a soft hiss. “Quick like or she’ll skin me alive. Rheumatics indeed.”
Charles smiled as the girl took his hat and coat. He couldn’t help noticing that for all she seemed to scorn her mistress’ ailments, she had sense enough to keep her sharp-tongued remarks sufficiently low not to be overheard. She allowed him one brief glance at the mirror to straighten his hair and tie, before ushering him into a tiny, cluttered parlour.
The room fitted every stereotype ever drawn of a lady’s room. Everything in it, including the woman herself, was carnation pink, patterned in florals, and swathed in lace. Charles felt horrendously out of place in his respectable brown tweeds: an unwanted shadow amid the rosy clouds. Mrs. Smith’s shrewd eyes assessed him from under her lace cap and a mop of untidy brown curls. Then with a gesture that seemed to say ‘what can one expect from a man’, she directed him to a worn armchair set much too near the fire.
“Do sit down Mr. Turner,” she boomed out in a voice loud enough to rattle the panes of glass beyond the lacy curtains. “Solicitor, did you say you were?”
“A clerk,” Charles corrected as he lowered himself into the chair, “With the firm of Kensington, Croft, and Fordham. I apologize for calling on you like this, but I was hoping to speak to you about your late nephew John Greene.”
“Surely not a legacy or anything of that kind?” she asked cunningly. “My own solicitor told me there was nothing left once the medical and funerary expenses were paid. One might have supposed that they could have simply buried him in Glasgow or Edinburgh or wherever he was, but no, they insisted on transporting him back here. I knew nothing about it until it was over and done, or I’d have put a stop to it at once, you can be sure. Extravagant foolishness and inconvenience, that’s all it was. Naturally, I couldn’t attend the services myself; my health is much too fragile.”
Over her shoulder, Charles saw Agnes roll her eyes.
“There is no legacy of which I am aware,” admitted Charles rather coldly.
Secretly, he was thinking that if he had come about a matter of a bequest, he’d have sought out every distant relation under the sun before offering this woman one red cent. To call the burial of one’s nephew an inconvenience!
“This is more of a… personal matter,” he continued.
Her expression changed from one of avarice to indifference.
“If you’re collecting for charities, I’ve nothing to give you,” she remarked dismissively and waved toward Agnes as if signalling the maid to show Charles out.
“I believe,” Charles soldiered on, “That I was at school with your nephew many years ago.”
He felt none of the remorse he’d experienced weaving the same fable for the vicar.
“I was at school with a boy of the name John Greene, you see, and I hoped to learn if it your nephew was the John I knew and find out,” he added impulsively, “What became of his poor dear mother. He always spoke so fondly of her.”
“My sister died four years ago,” Mrs. Smith remarked unfeelingly. “And I couldn’t possibly tell you if it was the same boy. I know nothing of his upbringing or education. A waste of money, whatever it was; he never amounted to anything. Fancied himself a poet if you can believe that. Utter nonsense.”
Charles heart gave a flutter at that detail. So John had been a poet! It seemed quite in keeping with the idea of John that Charles had been constructing in his mind.
“Then you’ve none of his old things,” he pressed, “No certificates or school prizes or anything like that?”
To Mrs. Smith’s obvious displeasure, Agnes cleared her throat.
“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, but there was a school pin in that box of the young master’s things Mr. Potts delivered. It caught my eye as I was replacin’ the things as had fallen out.”
Agnes pointed to a roughly hewn wooden crate half-peeking out from beneath the cheap damask tablecloth on the tea table beside the window.
“That rubbish,” the woman sneered. “I told Old Potts when he brought it, ‘You might as well drop that straight into the fire.’ It is a great inconvenience being burdened with mountains of useless flotsam one’s relations have saved out of some misplaced sentimental attachment.”
Charles doubted very much whether Mrs. Smith had ever experienced sentimental attachment, misplaced or otherwise.
“Then perhaps I can be of some service in removing it out to the refuse pile,” Charles offered as he rose to his feet. “I’ve no wish to impose on you further, and it would save you or Agnes the trouble. It does look quite heavy.”
It looked nothing of the sort, and Charles might have loathed himself for the gallantry he was displaying to the old crone were it not for the plan already formulating in his brain.
“Yes do,” Mrs. Smith ordered like a duchess speaking to a footman. “Good afternoon, Mr. Turner.”
Charles was more convinced than ever that John must have been a prince among men; princely young men were always encumbered by dreadful relations. Charles lifted the unwanted box and gave a slight bow over it.
“I apologize for having taken so much of your valuable time,” he lied.
He then followed Agnes toward the front door where his hat and coat were returned.
“Good day to you, Miss Agnes,” he offered with much more sincerity.
Her cheeks flushed, and Charles heard her give a soft giggle as she closed the door after him.
Poor kid, he thought, turning away. She has to put up with a lot of indignity from that gorgon, I’d imagine. Good thing she’s not the diffident, wilting type, or she’d be crushed underfoot.
In that particular area of the town, the neighbours all piled up their rubbish at one corner of a nearby alley for the dustman to collect. The spot was around the corner from Mrs. Smith’s residence, and Charles was grateful for that, since his disappearance with John’s belongings still in hand would rouse no suspicion in the unlikely event that Mrs. Smith should be watching his departure from one of her dingy windows. As far as he was concerned, it didn’t amount to stealing if a person took what was unwanted and discarded, but a constable might be persuaded to see the matter differently by someone like Elspeth Smith.
The container Charles bore was quite lightweight – not half so heavy as some of the client files Mr. Fordham regularly ordered Charles to bear to and fro. Mrs. Smith’s exaggeration about the ‘mountains’ of useless objects was laughable, although Charles didn’t find it the least amusing. In truth, it made his temper flare. Even if these things meant nothing to her, they must have meant something to John if he’d kept them. She ought to have the common decency to show them respect on that account.
She didn’t respect him enough to attend his funeral, he reminded himself. If she couldn’t even be bothered to put on a show of family feeling, she certainly wouldn’t trouble herself caring for his personal effects.
He climbed the stairs to the small room he let, placed the box aside long enough to divest himself of his outerwear, and then settled down before the grate to warm his feet and look over the priceless contents that had once belonged to John. His hands trembled as he reached out to remove the top. Nervousness? Excitement? He couldn’t tell.
From the haphazard way everything was assembled within, Charles surmised that Mrs. Smith had opened the lid just long enough to stir through in search of anything she considered valuable and then promptly cast it aside in disgust leaving Agnes to replace the scattered contents.
The first thing he drew out was a long thin parcel messily wrapped in butcher paper and twine. He cut the twine with a sharp knife and peeled away the covering to reveal an unframed portrait done in oils. The canvas, measuring no more than five inches by seven, depicted a handsome fellow in a navy blue coat. Shiny mahogany hair tied back in a neat tail offset a thin, pale face with a narrow nose and soft rosy mouth.
Charles gazed down into the mesmerizing face, that now familiar tightness growing in his chest. Dark fathomless eyes regarded him, full of sympathy and understanding. And, Charles thought, sorrow. Or perhaps it was pain. The bone structure of the face told him this was John as a man, not a boy. Had the consumption that ultimately claimed his life already begun to torment him when this portrait was done? Charles’ forefinger traced reverently over the line of John’s shoulder and arm.
“I knew you must have been beautiful,” he murmured.
Somehow, thinking John attractive didn’t cause him embarrassment any longer. And it may have been a trick of the lamplight, but the corner of the portrait’s lips seemed to turn upward just a hint more, as though pleased by this compliment.
Charles searched about for an appropriate spot to place John’s portrait: somewhere he would be able to watch as Charles sorted through John’s other possessions. After a few minutes, he decided on the top of the narrow bookshelf on the opposite side of the hearth. He propped John’s picture against a sturdy legal tome, and returned to his perusal.
Next he discovered a bundle of letters faintly scented with lavender and tied with a drab yellow ribbon. Charles read the direction of the topmost around the bow, hesitant to breach confidence. Notwithstanding the pang of curiosity – Charles refused to call it jealousy – he acknowledged that even a dead man was entitled to privacy when it came to love letters. True, John had been young, yet Charles could well imagine how effortlessly girls would have swooned for him.
The addressee, however, was a Mrs. Mairi Simpson Greene, whom Charles deduced had been John’s mother. It both warmed his heart and saddened him to think of John in a similar setting, going through his mother’s things after her death. Perhaps finding the parcel of letters in a drawer among her handkerchiefs. Had they made him smile? Or had he wept to know she’d kept them? That distressed Charles; he disliked the thought John crying. Quickly, he set the bundle aside.
He found a few books, including the family Bible, a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets once owned by a Christopher Greene, and a slim volume of poems by Allan Ramsay which according to the inscription had been awarded to John as a school prize for Literature. Trapped between some of its pages was the pin of which Agnes had spoken. Charles let it fall loose into his lap for a moment while he fastidiously straightened out the creases. Then he scooted nearer to the lamp to examine the pin more closely.
It was a miniature version of a coat of arms, no larger than a sixpence, made of some inexpensive metal such as tin – the sort of thing a boy might wear on the lapel beside or instead of a boutonnière. The detailing had not been very carefully wrought, but Charles could distinguish the basic field divisions and cross patée charges. Oddly enough he recognized the design of an eminent school in one of the nearby towns. Charles himself had once been enrolled there, although he had not attended the school, as his uncle, the primary financier of his education, had quarrelled with the headmaster on some point of theology and subsequently insisted that Charles receive his instruction elsewhere.
Charles had never felt more thwarted in his life. But for an argument, but for one obstinate old man with the power of riches over his poorer relations, Charles would have been John’s schoolmate. They would have been allocated to the same house, he was confident, and could have spent their study and meal and leisure hours in one another’s company. They might even have slept beside one another in the dormitory. Instead, Charles had been sundered from his destiny and denied a cherished friendship. Denied even the opportunity of forming an acquaintance.
A sharp jab against the palm brought Charles back to himself. He’d been clutching the pin so tightly that the corners of the shield had dug into the sensitive flesh and left a raw, red outline of the coat of arms behind. With a wry smile and a shake of the head, he set the bit of metal beside John’s portrait and began to blow on the mark to ease the discomfort. After all, losing one’s temper didn’t change the past, did it?
There were a few other items in the crate – a hairbrush, the metal nib of a pen and an empty ink bottle, some handkerchiefs, and the like. Charles brushed these all aside and extracted three leather-bound journals from the bottom. The covers were quite worn from use, particular at the corners, but they’d obviously been of high quality when new. Charles selected the one that seemed oldest and unfastened the braided strap that wound around to keep it closed. On the first sheet of yellowed paper was a nameplate dedicated with a thin, spidery letters:
Happiest of birthdays
22 March 1805
A birthday gift from his mother. And a well-chosen gift too, Charles noted as he leafed through the volume and found page after page filled with neat compact print. John’s hand was almost as perfect as typeset, Charles mused. He’d have been such an asset as a clerk in some law or apothecary’s office. Though even as Charles thought it, he dismissed the notion from his head. John didn’t deserve to be cooped up in some stuffy cupboard of an office, head bent over his desk from dawn to dusk until his back felt as if it would break. No, John had been an artist with an artist’s temperament. A delicate plant needing plenty of fresh air, and gentle sunshine.
Charles didn’t attempt to read the words just yet; he let his eyes sweep over them unfocused, merely taking in the general aesthetic of John’s script. John had been taught to be economical in his use of paper; that was clear. He hadn’t bothered with line indents or paragraph breaks the way one might compose a letter. From top to bottom, the only separation he used were dark horizontal lines, which Charles took to be breaks between entries, and he had filled the front and back of each sheet, leaving only a one-inch margin along the fore-edge. In that area, John had dated his entries, sometimes with a word or phrase below in elaborate calligraphy. He had embellished the remaining spaces with pencil sketches; flowering plants, woodland animals and garden insects, sailing ships and horse-drawn carriages all found a home in John’s notebook.
Charles reverently closed the volume and pressed it to his chest. What a miraculous treasure! And what a compounded tragedy if they’d been lost! Charles felt all the more vindicated in “stealing” for having rescued John’s works.
Impulsively he sprang up and threw on his coat. Scarf and hat forgotten, he shoved his feet into his boots and raced out of the room down the stairs, leather-bound book still clutched in his hand. He didn’t trouble to lock up after himself. There wasn’t time. He had to see John at once!
A harsh wind bit at his cheeks and whistled in his ears as he raced along the street. Several women with shopping baskets on their arms congregated in front of the green grocer’s to stare disapprovingly and speculate among themselves whether Mr. Fordham’s young clerk hadn’t been having a drop or two more than was good for him at The Crown on his afternoon off. Charles didn’t notice their censure and wouldn’t have cared a sliver if he had. There was space for no one but John in his thoughts.
He skidded to a stop at the corner of the lane passing the cemetery, taking just a moment to compose himself before continuing at a more dignified pace for the last few yards. The ground made an unpleasant squelching noise beneath his feet as he wound his way through the icy puddles to reach John’s grave.
Only a few weeks, and already the sad white cross had listed to one side. Charles frowned at its bedraggled appearance, spattered with mud and covered with wet, clinging flower petals. He pressed the cross more firmly down into the earth then searched about for a few stones he could pile at its base for additional stability.
“I’ll find more and make it a proper cairn next time,” he decided.
He brushed away the dead petals and wiped the speckles of mud from John’s name with his coat sleeve before settling down.
“I… found some of your journals,” he said, producing the one from under his arm as proof. “In a box of your things that your aunt was going to… but I saved them before she could. And… oh, John,” the words spilled out of him in a jumbled rush of energetic anxiety, “She said that you were a poet, and I saw some of the lovely sketches you’d drawn in the margins, so I think you must have been an artist too, and I would so love to read your thoughts if….”
“If you wouldn’t think it frightfully intrusive of me.”
Scarcely daring to breathe, he waited silently for some sort of sign. Any indication at all that John wouldn’t object to sharing his memories with Charles. He couldn’t have said what sort of answer he was expecting as he squatted on the soggy ground, listening to the rustle of the leaves overhead. When suddenly the drab grey clouds overhead parted, and a ray of wan autumn sunlight illuminated the old churchyard. A mantle of calm seemed to settle over Charles – his agitation ebbed and his heartrate slowed.
Permission had been granted.
“Thank you, John,” he whispered.
Charles stayed with John for nearly an hour talking about his visit with Mrs. Smith, all of John’s effects that he now possessed, and what he intended to do with them. His ears and nose had gone quite numb, but it was the twinkling light of polished lanterns on the Squire’s carriage as it bounced recklessly along the lane rather than the cold which drew to his attention the lateness of the hour. With one last check to be sure John’s cross was secured, Charles rose stiffly to his feet and made his return journey.
In spite of probably being late for his evening meal, he walked slowly, head down, with the book pressed to his heart beneath crossed arms. Food seemed so unimportant, and there was no one among the lodgers with whom he much enjoyed conversing. They were simple, honest folk, to be sure, and no real harm in any of them, aside from a tendency to gossip now and then. Still, Charles had never felt that any of them understood him particularly, and what he yearned for most was communion, not just banal small talk.
His mind turned back to the location he’d just left. There had been more empathy and connection in that one-sided conversation than in any two-sided discussion in which he’d participated these past five years. John listened. John didn’t mind if Charles became distracted mid-story or prattled on about things anyone else would consider inconsequential. John comprehended without needing an explanation.
By the time Charles had extricated himself from his mud-caked boots, he had indeed missed dinner; fortunately, the cook had saved him a bowl of pease pudding and a stottie cake so he wasn’t obliged to go to bed hungry. He sat in the kitchen near the stove as he gobbled down the food, then handed the bowl over to be washed and returned to his room.
John’s portrait was waiting for him atop the bookcase just where he’d left it. Charles stirred the embers in the grate and added another piece of coal, then picked up the painting and carried it with him toward the bed. He sat atop the bedclothes near the footboard and gazed down into that handsome, serene face.
“I’m most obliged to you for allowing me to read your works,” he said through a suppressed yawn. “And I’m quite tempted to begin tonight, but perhaps it would be just as well to wait until tomorrow and spend the rest of the evening attending to the other things.”
That did seem the more sensible choice, and Charles inferred from John’s expression that he concurred. So he set the portrait against the wall on the bedside table and returned to the neglected container.
By the time Charles crawled between the sheets that night, all of John’s things had found a proper place among his own: books and letters on the shelf, the school pin in the box next to his cufflinks, pen and ink bottle on the writing desk with two of the leather-bound notebooks. The third, which Charles had taken with him that afternoon, he placed beneath his pillow.
That night, he dreamt himself a child of six or seven in the company of another boy with large sparkling eyes and soft dark curls. Together they raced through the grassy fields and splashed each other with frigid sea water as they gathered oysters. They invented regal names and ridiculous heraldic titles for the squirrels they saw while searching for sweet chestnuts in the wood, and they competed with one another and the magpies for the plump fruit of the mulberry trees they climbed.
It was a bittersweet dream of Charles and John as they might have been. As they should have been. Charles had done all of those things as a boy; he’d always done them alone. He wondered as he dressed himself for work whether John had been alone much as a child too. Of course, he might find out eventually, depending on the sort of things John had recorded. He glanced hesitantly toward the leather corner visible beneath his pillow.
No, it would have to wait. He couldn’t afford to be late to the office. With a weary sigh, he bade John’s picture farewell and plodded down the steps to his breakfast.
Although Charles had been debating with himself whether he might visit the churchyard that evening after working hours, the heavy sleet that was pelting down at midday when Mr. Croft sent him to file a pleading in Chancery quickly convinced him that wasn’t a sensible option. As he tramped through the bleak weather, he consoled himself with the anticipation of reading John’s reflections. He was so impatient to learn everything there was to know about John that Charles was sorely tempted to attempt the lot in one sitting. Yet that would be an injustice to John’s words; they deserved to be savoured. So he decided to apportion himself no more than two pages per day – beginning with the earliest entry and proceeding chronologically.
And so, that night before bed and each night that followed, when as a child he’d been forced to say his prayers, Charles settled beneath the blankets, opened to the place he’d marked with one of the ribbons John had used to tie back his hair, and began his new ritual.
First, he would note the dates of the entries and compare them to the postmarks on the bundle of letters. When he found one composed at the same time, he would carefully remove it from the parcel as his daily ration. If no letter had been sent during the period, he would cast his mind back to his own past to see if he could recollect what he had been doing on those days. Ordinarily he couldn’t, but for special occasions such as holidays or birthdays, he might remember some snippet of what his life had been. When that happened, he would describe his own memories to the portrait of John at his side; it felt proper to share what of his own history he could with John when John was sharing so much with him.
Next, Charles would study the illustrations along the margin. He’d been quite right in supposing John to have an artistic penchant, and Charles devoted considerable time to properly appreciating the vivid imagination of a young boy and his ever-improving skill as the sketches became more detailed and lifelike with each passing month. Only after they had received proper admiration would he allow himself the exquisite pleasure of John’s words.
And what a pleasure they were! Charles acknowledged the possibility of some bias on his part; still he couldn’t think of anyone he’d known who had been as keenly intelligent or articulate as John. John often composed stories and poems, and many of the pictures beside them would relate directly. Charles would delight in looking back and forth between the eloquent words and clever pictures, his imagination on fire. Not even published novels had so moved him. John wrote with such precision, such keen attention to detail that no matter how exotic the setting, Charles could visualize exactly how it had all been as clearly as if he had seen and heard and smelled and tasted such things for himself.
Other entries were more typical diary accounts – setting down the day’s events or recounting some interesting fact John had learned during his studies. Yet even these ordinary domestic scenes were woven with such skill as to transport Charles into John’s world: the dormitory, the school room, his parents’ tumbledown cottage to which he returned during holidays. It was plain from the enthusiasm and breadth of the subject matter upon which John made comment that he had been an excellent pupil who had relished learning. He mentioned his parents with affectionate frequency as well but never any siblings. Charles wondered whether there had been no others, or if they had, like Charles’ own siblings, not survived past their first or second year of life.
The one conspicuous absence from John’s memoirs was the fellow students. John seldom spoke of them at all, and when they did happen to appear it was in such concise, lifeless language that they seemed quite artificial. “Adam has been sent home with the mumps” or “James tried to coax a stray dog into the dormitory with a mutton bone.” There was never any mention of confidences exchanged or games played or treats shared. It was as if John had lived in a separate world of his own, which intersected with the world of other children only by necessity.
How lonely it must have been. More than once, Charles fell asleep with an apology on his lips for not having been there to alleviate John’s isolation, and he took it as a solemn responsibility that John should never feel that way again. Although Charles had John’s portrait for company, he continued to visit the grave as frequently as the miserable late-autumn-turned-early-winter weather and his slavish hours of employment would permit. Typically, it was so dark by the time he left the law office that he could justify only a few minutes conversation; as a result, weekdays always left him desolate and irritable.
On Sundays, however, he’d spend the entire afternoon tending the gravesite. He scrounged beneath the thorny hedges and along the nearby stream bed for rocks to add to John’s cairn, which he decorated with wreaths of climbing nightshade and then as the Christmas season approached, mistletoe. Often when leaving the church after services, the vicar would notice Charles, and though the vicar generally only gave a brief wave of greeting, he would occasionally come further into that part of the graveyard to chat a moment. Charles found his presence an irritating intrusion on the rare time there was with John, but he grudgingly appreciated that the elderly clergyman was trying to do his duty as he saw it by offering comfort to a grieving member of his flock.
John always felt nearer in the churchyard than he did in Charles’ room. In a way it was odd that it should be so. John’s image was in that room; his words were in that room. Yet he wasn’t. Not in waking hours, at any rate.
Night after night, Charles’ continued to dream of John. Dreams of a childhood and adolescence that might have been. Of an alternate future in which John’s stories were published and Charles returned from court to a shared home every evening. There were other dreams. Men who somehow were and yet weren’t John and Charles, wearing the luxurious elegance of pre-Revolution French aristocrats, sipping champagne and dancing beneath glittering crystal chandeliers. Dressed in strangely fitting coats and trousers the likes of which Charles had never observed, and marching with oddly-shaped muskets on their shoulders. Seated together on a sofa before the fire. Hiking together through the wild, tangled greenery of some tropical jungle.
In what might have been a dozen different lifetimes, always together. But not in this lifetime. Charles ached with the bitterness of that fact. No matter how many imaginary existences his mind could create for him out of the vividness of John’s tales and the depths of his own yearning, the truth remained that in reality, he would only ever be alone.
Charles had been awaiting the letter and entry in John’s journal dated 11 November with a sort of uneasy excitement. That particular date was Charles’ birthday, and instinct told him that anything John had to say on his birthday would be monumental. He decided to indulge himself by reading them both together rather than spacing them out over two evenings as was his custom.
The back of his neck prickled with the electricity of a lightning bolt about to strike as he unfolded the sheets of stationery. Charles could tell at once that something had been amiss. John’s letter to his mother was as affectionate and informative as ever, asking about her health and the families of several seamen who served with John’s father while providing a detailed account of the various religious figures of the Protestant Reformation about whom the headmaster had been lecturing. Nevertheless, there was a forced cheerfulness in John’s tone that filled Charles with unease.
What could John have wished to hide from his mother? Could it have been early symptoms of his illness?
Charles hastily set the letter aside and drew the notebook from under his pillow. For once, he barely glanced at the drawing in the margin of a sprig of forget-me-nots wrapped in ivy. He would marvel at them later; just then, the words were what mattered most. He leaned closer to his bedside candle and read:
11 November 1806
I lied to Mother in my letter today. Headmaster says that all lies are sinful, whether they be white or black. He has read the Bible many times, so he must be correct. Yet it didn’t feel like a sin. It wasn’t a selfish lie, or a wicked lie. She frets so about my health and happiness, still more when Father’s at sea as he is now. So after all I had to lie to her. She’s always asking whether I am happy. I lied; I said that I am. I couldn’t tell her that I am miserable and lonely here. That I feel as if something or someone is missing from my life, and that sometimes the weight of it all crushes down on me until I could weep. She wouldn’t understand if I told her these things. How could she when I can’t properly explain them myself? I’m sure that she would think it should be impossible for me to be lonely with so many other boys around. That if I simply make an effort to be kind, we will get along splendidly and then everything will be all right. It isn’t all right. No one is unkind, but I saw from the beginning that I was nothing like them. Sometimes, like tonight, I feel that there isn’t a soul in the wide world who is capable of understanding me. That I am doomed to be alone forever. On more hopeful days, I think that if God made Eve for Adam, and sent the animals into Noah’s ark in pairs, that there must be someone out there for me too. Someone who could appreciate what it is that I’m thinking and feeling without needing to be told, who thinks and feels as I do. Perhaps if I just wait a while longer, that someone will appear. Dearest Someone, if you are out there, oh how I wish you would find me soon.
Charles read that last sentence again through the sting of helpless tears. For John to have expressed such poignant longing on Charles’ own birthday….
I was out there, and oh John, how I too wish that I had found you before it was too late.
Charles knew unquestionably that it had been himself for whom John had been longing. Just as Charles was longing for John now. Angrily, he doused the candle and threw himself face-first into the pillow, allowing the wretchedness of it all to take hold of him completely, the thought how brutally unfair it all was swirling around and around in his mind, refusing to grant him rest.
Hours seemed to pass before he was able to drift off into a fitful slumber.
He stood on the beach of some sheltered cove just beyond the waterline watching the waves gently roll in and out. Somewhere above and behind him, the lilt of funeral pipes mingling with the high screeching of gulls echoed through the cloud-filled slate-coloured sky. The song old Ted’s companion had been whistling as they laid John to rest.
Charles turned slowly from the sea landward, eyes coming to rest on the slim figure standing just a few paces behind. A figure more familiar than his own by now.
The young man smiled at him, a gentle, tender smile, and held out a hand to Charles.
“A’v been waitin for thee, Darlin. A kent thee’d come.”
Charles crossed the shore in three quick strides, flinging himself into John’s embrace and kissing the younger man without a moment’s hesitation. John’s lips were soft and pliant beneath his, and so impossibly sweet that Charles went weak at the knees and might have collapsed had it not been for John’s arms wound securely around him.
“John,” he whispered hoarsely.
There was so much that he wanted to say, but his throat and tongue refused to form the words. Not that it mattered; John understood.
“A ken, Charles. A’m wi thee nou; dinna greit an brak ma hairt.”
John. Beautiful, perfect, wonderful John was in his arms where he belonged. Charles gave himself over to it all completely, fingers mapping every contour of face and neck and back. Committing each precious detail to memory, and exulting in John reciprocated his every touch.
Yet even as he did, Charles’ heart bled, because he knew it was only a dream. That when the sun rose, John would be gone beyond arms’ reach forever. And he would have given anything to remain in that dream and never wake up.
He awoke as he’d fallen asleep: to teardrops soaking his pillow.
In the weeks following that marvellous, torturous dream, Charles became increasingly restless. Listless. Utterly disconnected from everything and everyone around him. He loathed every dawn he saw, and counted every moment until he could escape once more into oblivion. The only waking moments in which he experienced any peace, albeit a melancholy peace, were as he sat next to John’s grave. February dragged into March, and with each passing day Charles felt more and more how intolerable it was to be forced to leave John’s side. To be expected to eat and bathe and work… the futility of it all chafed at his fraying nerves.
By this point, John’s memoirs had taken a sombre turn; his writing was still moving, but Charles could tell how little energy John had for the creative process. Accounts of his activities were infrequent, mostly touching on the doctors and medical students he’d consulted at the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School, and any poetry he composed was short – only a few lines each – and fixated on human mortality. It seemed that John had known what was coming just as Charles did. Being aware that John’s end was near and having no means of preventing or easing the immense pain he must have been living with left Charles even more defeated.
The morning of John’s birthday, Charles surrendered to the dejection. He scribbled out a barely coherent note to his employers claiming that he was too ill to work, and gave the landlady’s son a ha’penny to deliver it for him. He lay in a feverish daze, drifting in and out of awareness.
At midday, someone tapped on his door; he ignored it. The next time he roused, he found a tepid cup of tea had been left on his bedside table. He ignored that too.
John. Where was John? He needed John.
Charles toppled out of the bed and staggered around the room like a drunkard, somehow managing to pull on some clothes. His outerwear went on out of sheer habit, and he pulled his hat down low over his eyes to block the offensively cheerful rays of the late afternoon sun as he stumbled along the street, his body carrying him reflexively toward the one for whom he yearned so desperately.
“John,” he cried out mournfully, sinking onto his knees before the pile of stones surrounding the wooden cross. “I love you so, John.”
Tears streamed down his face as he embraced the meagre cairn, his mad babbling falling meaninglessly on the unhearing ears of the man resting below. A few townsfolk heard the cry, however, and came to investigate. Ted, the gravedigger, was among then, and when he saw the young clerk prostrated on the ground, he ordered his granddaughter off at once in search of the vicar. He then quietly shooed the others away, assuring them that he would keep watch to see the lad did no harm to himself until the vicar could come and set things right.
The vicar was still out paying calls on his poorer parishioners, as it was the curate’s day to lead evensong. By the time Ted’s granddaughter had found the old man and guided him back at a pace his portly stature would tolerate, the sky had shifted from deep purple to sable black with just a sliver of moon visible through the tree branches, and the faint warmth provided by the spring sun had long since dissipated.
Ted and the vicar exchanged worried glances as the clergyman gingerly picked his way through the graves toward the unconscious figure prostrated on the ground. Charles had sobbed himself to exhaustion and now lay with his head pillowed on the cairn, his arms still wound around its base in an awkward hug.
“Poor boy,” the vicar spoke in a soothing voice as he leaned over and shook Charles gently by the shoulder. “How have you let your grief come to this?”
Even in slumber, Charles recoiled from the touch and the sound of his name. He didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to move or think. Didn’t want to wake. Nevertheless, his body betrayed him; slowly, he returned to consciousness to find the vicar bent over him, concern evident on his drooping face.
“This is no place for resting, particularly at this hour,” he was saying.
Charles blinked his bleary eyes and glanced around himself. He was curled up atop the frigid ground of John’s grave; every joint and muscle in his body hurt as he tried to sit up, and he felt positively blue with cold.
“S-sorry, F-f-father,” he muttered through chattering teeth. “D-didn’t m-m-mean to.”
The vicar motioned Ted over; each man grabbing Charles under one arm, they hoisted him to his feet. Charles swayed a bit as his frozen feet decided whether they would bear his weight, but after a few moments he was able to keep himself upright. Ted gave him a hearty slap on the back and with a touch of his cap to the vicar, left for home.
The vicar also gave Charles a pat on the back, though his was much lighter.
“I dare say you’ll think I’m meddling,” he began sympathetically, “But I feel quite sure that your young friend there would not wish for you to expose yourself to illness out of devotion to him. Nor,” he added kindly, “To madness. No true friend would. Do go home. You will honour his memory most by taking better care of yourself.”
Charles tried to control his shivering enough to protest that the vicar had never met John and couldn’t possibly know what the young poet would have wished. Yet before he could form a rational reply, the dream memory of John’s voice murmuring in his ear filtered to the surface of his mind.
Gie’s anither kiss tae tide us ower yett a while, an A’ll be seein thee agin afore lang.
A sense of calm enveloped Charles. Yes, he’d be seeing John before long. There was no need to worry any more. Without another word, he drifted away from the vicar out toward the lane in the direction of the main street.
“Mind how you go!” the vicar called after him with a shake of the head.
Then he turned his attention to the humble grave.
“You were very dear to him, I think,” the vicar observed to John. “There aren’t many men at your age or mine who could boast such a faithful ….”
His speech was interrupted by an ear-splitting shriek and a horrific crash. Lights appeared in a dozen nearby windows; agitated shouts and the sound of running feet filled the air.
The vicar stumbled over the cemetery’s uneven ground as he hurried toward the uproar. The scene which greeted him as he turned the corner onto the main road filled him with foreboding:
The Squire’s carriage lay overturned in the middle of the road. One horse was toppled over and flailing as it tried to extricate itself from the tangle of reins and harness; another had already broken free and fretfully shied away from any townsmen that tried to capture her. The Squire, bleeding from a gash on his forehead, was swearing very loudly at his coachman as he and another group of men struggled to right the vehicle. And there beneath the front wheel, lying in a dark pool of something very like blood was Charles.
The men worked valiantly to free him from the pinning weight, but one look at the young man’s face was proof enough that he was beyond saving. The vicar waited patiently for them to finish before going to kneel at the dead man’s side. Such a difference a quarter of an hour had made. That innocent face, once so lined with sorrow and grief, was now perfectly serene.
“Yea, tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”
The vicar knelt and offered up a prayer.
So it was that two days later, Charles Maxwell Turner was laid to rest alongside John Simpson Greene: a perfect stranger whom he had mourned and come to love with all his heart. And for a time, their sundered souls were reunited.
Isn’t that beautiful? 🥰
Well.. I must read my flist now.. toodle-loo!