There is a visual suggestion. Not much more than an unexpected movement of the air, a fluttering in the corner of his eye.
Perhaps not even that—it was more like a barky whisper as he strode past the old tree on his left, a gentle tap on his shoulder that didn’t register for a few more steps: words, it said, words carved here in this bark.
At that he stopped and turned. He looked back, then up; took the tree in. An oak it was, old and grand and mum, as if denying having said any such thing.
Trevor retraced his last few steps, then faced the tree again, scrutinized it: the somber trunk, thick and grey and brownly furrowed; no words though. He stepped back a little, looked again, tried to envision the spot that had spoken, as if it had, still no words. He approached the tree again and looked closer. Then he shook his head: no, there was nothing, though he could have sworn.
But as he straightened and turned to go, there it was again, the same whisper, peripherally: yes, definitely something—what was that?
Again he faced it, and again, nothing.
Now he stepped all the way up to the tree, close enough to touch it, scanning it closely for letters. He touched it now, still nothing. He took two steps back to get a different view, scanned the bark again, probed it with his eyes, in depth, asking it to give it up. No, no, still nothing. Strange illusion, though, for he could have sworn.
Looking away now: and there again, letters. Or what very well could be, or at one time could have been, letters. This time he did not shift his gaze back to the tree, instead he held the spot firmly at the edge of sight, and only when he was certain of the spot, he once again approached the stocky trunk, and now, yes, yes, he finally saw them, letters. He placed his finger on what seemed the first of several obscured by bark, buried by years and years.
But now he could see it, as if the tree (having thought things over) had finally given its consent.
The first of four, it struck him like an old wound, a welt, buried within and under many seasons of subsequent bark. He traced it carefully with his finger, the bark as rough as sandpaper under its tip. A vertical line it was, which then, at the bottom, angled to the right, half again the distance.
An L, then.
He looked closer, searched the fine crevices of the miniature landscape, and in the depth of it—underneath both ridge and valley—he saw the foot of the L quite distinctly now. Yes. An L it was. The stem clear enough, now that he knew what he was looking for—or how to look for it, rather, how deeply—and there, yes, the foot.
An L-shaped scar, well camouflaged, but definitely an L. Faintly, as if it had once grown itself into young brown tree-skin, then thought better of it and done its best to vanish.
He stepped back again, farther this time, again taking in all of the tree, all seventy feet of it—at least—soaring above him into an overcast sky still mumbling about rain. It must be ancient. He took in the massive lower branches, giant arms carved as if in rock. Ancient, he thought again. He looked back for the L. For an instant—faintly tinged by panic—he could not find it, but no, there it was. And so were the other letters. He stepped closer again, to about an arm’s length, the right distance, the right depth. Looked. The second letter was a D.
Or an O.
An L and a D. Capital letters both. No, he looked again, that was not a D, it was an O. LO. And the third letter was a V, quite clearly now that he seemed to have got the hang of it. And the fourth, yes, he could have guessed, an E. LOVE. That was the word. LOVE.
And now he saw, underneath this first word, the other two words, or their shadows. He counted them. There were seven letters on the second line, then four again beneath that.
A very short poem, he thought. Or a message.
And—letting the letters come to him, as if on their own volition, on the tree’s terms—he read:
He approached the tree again. Stepped on a twig that didn’t so much snap against the moist underground as groaned. He looked down, briefly thinking whatever he had stepped on might have been alive. Even after he saw it was just a twig he just about apologized.
He looked again at the trunk. Now that he knew what was there he could see it well enough and it spoke to him quite clearly. “Love thyself last,” it said. Then something odd struck him. The words LOVE and THYSELF—except for the final letter, the F—were, what? Efforts, that was the only word that came to mind, like hard work. The F, however, seemed slightly different. As if, yes, effortless, poured, smoother. And so was, now that he could discern the difference, the third word, LAST. It was as if the writer had finally found his tongue.
“Love thyself last.”
He knew those words, or had known them. They smacked of public school, they did. Of English Literature, the verbatim kind, his growing up kind, the rapped knuckles if you didn’t know them kind. Love thyself last. Milton, was it? Blake? John Ruskin? The Bible? He read the words again. No, he could for the life of him not place them. Then he wished he had brought his camera.
Stepping back, careful not to hurt the twig again, he leaned his head all the way back and once more took in the tree, looking up through it. This oak was indeed very old. How old do they get anyway, oaks? He wasn’t sure.
He looked around for others of his kind, to compare, to get a sense of seniority, of relative age, but noticed instead that the clouds had begun to softly keep their promise with a fine, almost misty drizzle. Not cold though, warm for September, pleasant almost. It was the kind of rain that made the ground give up all its secret smells: the faint musk of dead leaves, not quite mulch yet, but well on their way; the fresher scent of things alive, of moss, of berries; the scents of stones, and lichen, and earth, they all mixed and rose into the moist sky and added dimension to the forest, and for a moment he felt as if he were standing in a strange room, some sort of museum.
It was a pleasant drizzle. It would come down harder soon, though. He looked again for other oaks, brother and sister trees, offspring. There were a few of them, but not many. What there were many of, however, were beeches. And ash, and willow, and what looked like a birch or two; and, yes, there and there, one, two, he could count five oaks from where he stood, his soaring messenger included. Loners each, outcasts almost, pushing their neighbors away, and none of them all that happy with the company by the looks of things.
He looked back at his oak one final time.
The rain, due warning now over and done with, set out in earnest: one, two, many heavier drops. One found his nose with an almost splash. Time to retreat. Yes, he would in a second. He returned to the words. Ran his fingers over them one last time, as if to commit their hiding place to fingery memory. Off in the distance he could hear a lorry’s horn. And from the same direction, faintly, like a river, other traffic on the not so far away motorway.
Yes, high time to head back.
The late Sunday afternoon traffic was light. Well, it was staying-inside weather now and people were doing just that; lots of bluish telly lights in windows along the way. He pictured them with dinners on their knees, watching, chewing, laughing, spilling food on their skirts or trousers, smiled at this image as he returned to the road. The rain did make it untrustworthy, better pay attention. He slowed down a little just to be safe. Even so, he made it back to his flat by nightfall.
It felt colder inside than outside. He switched on the wall heater, which sprang to life with several crackles and pops, as if stretching stiff joints. Trevor crouched before it to warm up a bit, then made himself some coffee which he brought, in a large steaming mug, to his desk. He sat down at his desk, turned on his home computer and began to look for it.
“Love thyself last.”
Come to find: it was not Blake, nor was it the Bible. Nor was it Milton, nor Ruskin. It was Shakespeare: Henry VIII. Wolsey addresses Cromwell. Thus:
Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition:
By that sin fell the angels; how can man then
The image of his Maker, hope to win by’t?
Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee;
Corruption wins not more than honesty.
Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace,
To silence envious tongues: be just, and fear not.
Let all the ends thou aim’st at be thy country’s,
Thy God’s, and truth’s: then if thou fall’st O Cromwell!
Thou fall’st a blessed martyr.
A tribute to the Bard, then? Yes, possibly. He took another sip of his coffee. It was nice and warm and fragrant—he could feel the brew filter into his limbs and stir them awake. Yes, possibly, but that was not the sense he had gotten from those words, not as written on that oak. Besides, would not an offering to Shakespeare carved in oak have taken the better known form of, “To be, or not to be,” perhaps. Or, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” No, too long, perhaps, but better known, definitely.
No, he decided, they were not a tribute. The three carved words struck him as too personal, as too not-actually-meant for Cromwell.
Love thyself last. He said it again and then leaned back in his chair—which creaked just a little in protest. He pictured the tree again and the words it had so reluctantly shared. It seemed to him they had been carved by a heart, almost pleaded into bark; and a long time ago, the oak their custodian ever since.
He read the passage from Shakespeare again. And again. No, he decided, definitely: the oak cared nothing about the Bard, it cared about the person who for some reason other than tribute had carved them.
Hands wrapped around the warm cup, he looked out the window. Night had fully fallen. So darkly now he could barely make out the rain—which he certainly could hear, coming down heavily now—while contemplating the drain pipes climbing the walls across the courtyard, reflecting lighted windows and city sky as they, like long, dim glowworms, made their way to their individual flats.
And he wondered who had carved those letters, those words, and why?
And had they actually been carved, as with a knife? It would stand to reason but he didn’t think so. They did not strike him as carved at all.
He placed his right forefinger against the bark, pressed hard, then traced it downward in a vertical line.
Then he re-traced it.
Then he traced it again.
This was the tree to carry his message. It stood large; a sentry in the little clearing, not a hundred paces from his shelter. Though nearly at full height, it was a youth as oaks go—fine and arrogant. Not all that happy to see him, was the sense he got.
He bent his head back and looked up. Grey and brown and green against the cloudless sky. Tall and fine. It would serve him well.
He was a youth as humans go.
He re-traced the vertical line most of that afternoon, until his fingertip wore soft, then smooth, then sore, then raw, then bloody. Still he traced that one vertical line, over and over, until his finger showed bone, and still he traced it, over and over.
“John. Trevor here.”
He cradled the receiver between his left cheek and his shoulder, sipped his newly brewed coffee, and again glanced out the window; at the climbing (or diving) drainpipes, white and grey now in the early day. It was still overcast but the rain had finally stopped. The floor was cold under his bare feet, and his eyes cast about for his slippers. They came up empty.
When John didn’t reply, Trevor said, “Did I wake you?”
“No, no. I mean, yes, but I’m fine. What time is it?”
“Seven and a bit.”
“Yes, John. Morning.”
There was a long silence at the other end of the line while John pieced things together. Success. “Trevor. It’s a bank holiday.”
“What do you want?”
“I have a favor to ask. I would like to show you something and see what you think.”
“Bring it over later. I have some unfinished sleeping to attend to.”
“Well, actually, I have to bring you to it.”
Another long silence. “What is it?”
No reply to that.
“An oak,” Trevor added.
“It’s what’s written on it I’d like you to take a look at.”
“Carved,” he said. “That’s odd. Wow, someone’s carved something on a tree?”
“Yes. What if I pick you up at nine?”
“Trevor.” It came across as a sigh. “What’s going on?”
“Well, for one, it’s a curious carving. What it says, I mean. And for two, I’m not really sure it’s carved, actually. It’s been bothering me all night, and the more I think about it the more curious it gets. I’m wondering how it got there, and I’m sure that if anyone can figure that one out it would be you.”
“At that would have to be on my one day off?”
“You had the weekend off.”
“That doesn’t count.”
“So, is nine all right, then?”
There was another silence before John capitulated, “Yes. Alright.”
“Good. I’ll be there.”
“Fine.” Not all that happy about that arrangement.
Trevor replaced the receiver and stepped closer to the window to get a view of the sky. He scanned it for signs of blue but found none.
John stood waiting in his doorway when Trevor pulled up. John leaned over to his left and opened the passenger door for his friend. John folded over and maneuvered himself into the old Mini and pulled the door shut.
Trevor’s Mini was the real thing, the original kind; so original, in fact, and in such good shape, that he had given more than a fleeting thought to joining one of those “Original Mini” clubs that had sprung up like mushrooms around London, especially now that the new, and not original Minis had begun to appear.
John turned to face him. He was unshaven. Well, that was not surprising. And his brown hair a little ever-which-way. “Okay, Trevor. You’ve got me out of bed. I’m dressed, I’m hungry, and I’m here. Now what?”
“You call that dressed?” As he pulled away from the curb.
“I’m not a bloody model.” John’s Welch heritage peaked through the word bloody, and Trevor had to smile. “Like some,” John made a point of adding.
Trevor said, “Glen Row.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Halfway to Brighton.”
“I have heard of that.”
“There’s a forest just south of the place.”
“Did I mention I was hungry?”
“Yes I did, and I am. The price of my participation is breakfast, payable now.”
“So, a forest?”
“Well, that’s where you would find them.”
“Oaks, you mean?”
They drove in silence for a while through nearly empty streets. By rows and rows of parked cards; trees and buildings and sky reflected in the wet asphalt. Trevor turned to John: “Really. I wouldn’t have dragged you out of bed on your day off, but there is something very odd about this carving.”
“Which isn’t really a carving, you said.”
“Exactly. It should be carved, but I don’t think it is. And the other thing is that you can hardly make it out at first. At all.”
He explained as he drove. Still no rain, and very little traffic; most people, of course, taking proper advantage of the bank holiday.
“I’m still hungry,” said John.
So they found an open roadside café where John had his fill of eggs and chips, a coffee as well, which made him a lot happier.
Trevor found the very spot at the south end of the village where he had parked his car not twenty-four hours ago for his weekend forest stroll. He killed the engine and pulled the hand break. Once out of the car, he looked up, still hoping for blue somewhere but no such luck. Just masses of grey sailing rapidly against a vaster, lighter grey. A light wind brought the smell of foresty rain, as if it had just ceased here. He found the path and beckoned John to follow.
The ground was quite soggy; it must have rained through the night here. Should have worn boots, he thought. Too late now though.
And there was the little clearing; found it, no problem. Walked right to it. Well, he was one of those people who could always find his way back to places he had been. Finding them in the first place was his problem, not finding them again. When it came to revisits, he was uncanny. And, yes, there it stood, the old oak. Hard to miss, once you had the clearing.
This time Trevor made out the words, quite easily; as if his uncanny knack of revisiting applied to barky letters as well.
“See,” he turned to John on his right, “Love thyself last.”
John took his time. He squinted, then shifted, then looked at Trevor, then looked at the tree again. “I don’t see it.”
“Here. L.” Trevor stepped up to the trunk and traced it slowly for John to see.
“Oh, yes,” said John, now squinting again. “Yes. I see what you mean.” Now he stepped closer then away again, just like Trevor had done the day before. “Yes, now I see. How on earth did you spot this in the first place?” he asked without taking his eyes off the spot. Then approached the trunk again and sat down on his haunches for a closer study.
Trevor had to smile. For all his reluctance and moaning about his day off, once something caught John’s interest, all else was forgotten. And this was catching it, all right.
“Not really sure, to be honest. I just caught a glimpse of it. Well, it wasn’t even that.”
“The light must have been just right.”
“Yes, I guess. Just an impression. Like a hint, you know, in the corner of my eye. Then, when I turned for a closer look, I could see nothing. I was about to walk on, thinking I had been mistaken, when I saw the letters peripherally again. I finally found them. Beneath the bark, as it were.”
“Love thyself last,” read John.
“That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Love. Thyself. Last.” Pointing to each word.
“Do you think they are carved?” Trevor asked.
John didn’t answer for some time. He rose and backed away a little, then moved closer again and back down on his haunches. He studied each letter separately. Took his time and had probably forgotten Trevor and his question.
“What do you think?” nudged Trevor.
“They seemed to have stretched a little as the tree grew, though not too much,” said John, more to the oak than to Trevor. “I suspect that this oak only had a few feet to go when this was made. Before full height, I mean.”
“Still,” continued John, “that was a long time ago. These,” he nodded toward the letters, “must have been carved a hundred, perhaps even a hundred and fifty years ago.”
Trevor didn’t answer, just waited for more.
“Yes,” John said, while examining the last word, LAST, with extra care. “Yes, a long time ago.”
“How old do these guys get?”
“Oh,” said John, looking up at Trevor. “Oaks, like this one, can grow well beyond two hundred years, some older. This one is at least two hundred. I’d say between two hundred ten and two hundred twenty.”
“Well, you should know.”
“Yes, I guess I should.”
“And they were not carved, were they?”
John took yet another close look at several of the individual letters, before he answered:
“No, they were not. Carved is not the word. More like rubbed, with some sort of blunt instrument.”
“Oh, I don’t know. A stone perhaps. An iron rod. A twig, a wedge, I can’t tell.”
“Is there any way to tell?”
“There’s always a way.” John fell silent, still studying the three words. Then he straightened. “Damn,” he said. “I should have brought my camera.”
“My thought exactly, yesterday,” said Trevor.
“You brought one?” With hope.
“No, I forgot.”
Neither said anything for a while. John kept looking at the tree and the three words.
Trevor felt the musky air with its many scents quite invigorating. It was about to start raining again, he could almost feel the drops letting go of the low-gliding clouds; and then he could hear the first few of them finding leaves both in the trees and on the ground. Farther off the rain had begun in earnest, he could hear that, too. Heading their way.
“I want to examine this closer,” said John finally, still inspecting the letters one by one. “I need my camera. Close-ups. Enlargements. You’re right, Trevor. This is really curious.”
“And did you notice the F in THYSELF? And the last word? No pun intended.”
“Yes,” answered John, missing the odd but unintentional wordplay. “I did notice. Smoother. Much smoother.”
Trevor recognized that tone of voice, and again smiled to himself. When John sounded like that it meant that his friend had accepted the challenge and taken on the project of solving the riddle.
Then the main body of rain reached them and they scrambled back to the car.
The rain came down pretty hard on their way back, so Trevor kept the speed down, especially knowing that John wasn’t all that fond of cars in the first place. Called himself a train man. That, and the tube. Cars only when nothing else was available. Trevor had the heater on and the little car turned cozy inside. Some would call it stuffy, but they both seemed to enjoy it, warm silence to the rhythm of wiper blades and the crusty hum of wheels through water.
“And the words,” Trevor said as they passed Oxted—as if continuing a conversation. “Love thyself last? I don’t think they refer to Henry VIII, do you?”
“Oh, I have no idea. I’m still at the ‘how did they get there’ stage.”
“You’ll figure that out.”
John—busy figuring—didn’t answer.
By the time they arrived at the parking spot for a second time that day, the skies were finally clearing.
Back in London they had stopped by John’s lab to pick up his photo gear, and at their respective flats for boots and umbrellas. Now they were back for the shoot, as John called it. The light wasn’t actually fading yet, but would at any moment. Trevor asked him about it, but John said not to worry, the flash would give the pictures better definition than vague daylight any day. Still, he wanted some “natural” shots, he said, and scrambled out of the car in what, for him, was a hurry. They headed back to the tree, the constant returner Trevor leading.
He could not go on. He fell back into soft ground and looked up into pain-filled sky.
His enraged finger screamed from somewhere below the elbow. Colin refused to listen while his finger refused to stop screaming. Colin re-refused to listen. Instead he scrambled up onto his feet and began scouring the ground for a twig thick enough to serve as a bit, something to sink his teeth into to keep his screams from escaping. He found one.
He scraped off some remaining bark with his hand, then placed it in his mouth and bit down. He had missed some bark which he now spit out before returning the bit back to his mouth.
The incongruous picture of being a horse briefly appeared and vanished.
He returned to the tree and the dark, vertical line.
He found it easily enough and placed the raw fingertip at the top of it. Then he pressed down hard and traced it again, re-painting it now with his blood. He bit down even harder on the wood to hold back the scream that now, more than anything, wanted out into the open, fighting tongue and teeth and wood to let it pass. Colin managed to keep it back while he traced the line again, then traced it again, and again.
The natural light was still sufficient, he said, when John had finished setting up the camera, and he took the first several pictures without a flash. Long exposures, John explained. “Nice light, actually,” he added.
He then moved the tripod closer and took the remaining many pictures in the colder but more defining light of electronic artificial lightnings; some very close up, letter by letter.
They did not speak much on their way back to London. The night was falling now along with fresh rain and Trevor had to pay attention to his driving. John seemed to be nodding off, but was not. He was wondering about the letters. As was Trevor.
John called Trevor Tuesday night.
“I can’t tell,” he said, and Trevor pictured him, loupe in his eye, inspecting under his bright desk lamp one of the enlargements from the shoot. “Not for sure. I am going to need some samples.”
“Rubbed, like I said.”
“With something blunt, right?”
“Yes. Must have been. Chafed, with something. But I can’t say with what. It’s too old.” Trevor could hear him sort through the prints, now picking out another one, inspecting it, too. “And then we have those last five letters,” John said. “They’re something altogether different again.”
“Oh, much. Not chafed or rubbed. They remind me a little of a seam laid down by an expert welder. It’s almost as if they were poured.” Then another pause while John inspected the print. “Yes, those scars seem almost liquid in the enlargements.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know what it means. This really has me baffled, I have to admit.”
“Are you coming ‘round? Can I see the photos?”
“Not tonight. They just called me and I have to leave for a crime scene. A probable homicide.”
“Tomorrow lunch, perhaps? I’ll call you on your mobile.”
John hung up, and Trevor dismissed a fleeting notion of driving down to Glen Row again, just to take another look, for it was already dark outside and a trip now would yield nothing. Instead he made himself some tea and opened up Henry VIII at the marked place: “Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee.”
The he closed first the book, and then his eyes.
His teeth sank a little deeper into the soft wood with each re-tracing, locked in their own battle with the broken branch.
And still Colin traced. Each vertical movement removed a little more of the oak’s bark and a little more of his forefinger. He stared at the short vertical line, clearly visible now from the blood—even through the film of pain that now blurred his vision—and reapplied the raw tip to the top of the line. And now he pressed down hard again and traced it and did not scream, but sank his teeth ever deeper into moist, resisting wood.
Again, they stood in front of the old oak, both intent on the letters now clearly visible to each, now that they knew where, and how to look.
“As if poured, or applied with heat,” said John. “Though the seam is too smooth even for that. And there’s no trace of charring that I can detect. It’s almost as if,” then paused, still examining the T in LAST.
“As if what?”
“I don’t know. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s almost as if the oak itself welled these final letters.”
Trevor didn’t answer.
“I know that sounds weird,” said John, “but looking at them now, they are so smooth it seems they rose to the surface from inside the tree.”
Trevor leaned closer as well. “I see what you mean.”
“Definitely not burned,” said John.
“How about the samples?” Trevor more nudged than asked.
“In a minute.” John continued to absorb the letters. “The first ten. The first then were all made in the same way, by the same process, by the same rubbing or chafing. But these last five.” John was talking more to himself than anything, and Trevor knew better than to interrupt. John was on a job now and was all business. “No, not these ones.” Finally, John delved into his shoulder pack and brought out three small, plastic Ziploc bags and a fine knife.
He took three samples. One from the opening “L”, one from the “Y”, and from the final “T”. The fine scrapings of each found themselves in separate bags, which John sealed shut with a practiced motion of thumb and forefinger, before they vanished into his pack.
“You’ve left marks,” said Trevor, a little surprised, and for some reason a little alarmed.
“I had to go deep enough,” John answered. Not apologetically. Professionally.
They drove back, again pretty much in silence, pondering their own angles. Trevor at least as curious about the words themselves, as about the manner of their making. John absorbed by the latter.
Back in London, Trevor pulled up by John’s apartment to let him out. John would test the three samples in his lab as soon as he got a chance, he said, and call Trevor as soon as he knew. He could most likely get this done by the weekend, unless he got tied up with another assignment, or had to go out of town on one.
Trevor said, great, call him as soon as he knew anything. John said he would, and then did not slam the car door shut as he left. He was quite precise with things like that. Just the right pressure, and the door hardly even said click before it sealed him out.
John did not call by the weekend. In fact, Trevor could not find him. The lab said he was out of town, but couldn’t say exactly where. Nor did he answer his mobile phone. That Saturday afternoon, Trevor drove down to the oak by himself for another look.
“Ah, sir. Yes. I see. Yes.” Mr. Yeats—no relation to the poet, mind you—bent a greying head and bushy eyebrows closer to the trunk, then adjusted his steel rimmed glasses as he studied the letters. “And right you are, sir. No knife I know of would have made those marks. No, sir. I think I can promise you that.” He straightened up and stepped back from the tree. Turned to Trevor and took him in over the silvery rims of his glasses with opaque but lively eyes. “Knives, you see, make different marks. Very different marks.” He looked around. “I’ll show you.”
Trevor had met him walking from his car to the tree. A local man, out taking his constitutional. A bit of air, you see. Very good for the system. Have done it for years. Works up an appetite, too.
And what would he—Trevor was it?—be doing here then?, Mr. Yeats wanted to know. Not unfriendly, like, just curious. So Trevor told him about the letters and when Mr. Yeats grew interested agreed to show him.
Mr. Yeats found what he was looking for and soon led the way over to another oak, not quite as tall, but perhaps as old. “Here,” he said, pointing, “these letters are carved with a knife.”
Clearly. And quite fresh, to boot. Bethe, the carving said, along with a short curved line that could be the beginning of a heart, though the author had left it at that, an unfulfilled intention.
“The ones I found,” Trevor nodded in the direction of his tree, “are much older.”
“Oh, yes. Much older.” Mr. Yeats looked back with him. Then he fell silent in thought. “You know, there’s a better one,” he said after a while, and started walking.
This tree was shorter still, but seemingly even older, gnarled. And not too happy to see them, it seemed. It would much rather be left in peace, is what it said.
Yeats pointed. “Here.”
Trevor could make nothing out initially. “Here,” said Yeats again. “These are knife carvings too.” Trevor focused by Mr. Yeats’ finger and then saw them. Smaller letters, almost obscured by age, but visible nonetheless, now that he knew where to look: “Leigh April 4, 1842,” it read.
No question about when. Trevor looked closer and saw how, despite their age, the edges of these letters were quite crisp, defined, a cut. His letters had no such definition. “I see,” he said.
“So what do you think could have cut those other letters?” Trevor asked, and again looked back over towards his tree.
“I’m not sure as ‘cut’ is the right word, sir,” said Yeats. “Chafed, more like.”
Mr. Yeats didn’t answer, but instead set out toward Trevor’s tree. Trevor followed.
“Chafed?” he asked again. “With what, do you think?”
“There’s no telling, really. Something blunt. Something softish.”
“How old would you guess?”
“About the same age as our friend Leigh, I would say.”
Mr. Yeats took another good look at the three words. Trevor noticed what seemed like a familiarity to this inspection, as if the old man was savoring them—like you would a stamp in your collection, or an old, rarely visited photograph, in your album. “And you’ve not seen these letters before?” he asked.
“I never said that,” Mr. Yeats said without looking up.
No he hadn’t, had he? “Have you noticed the last five letters?” Trevor asked.
Mr. Yeats looked up at him. “What about them?”
“Well, they’re different.”
He looked back at the trunk. For show or to see, Trevor could not tell. “So they are,” said Yeats.
“As if poured,” said Trevor.
“That’s a curious way of putting it,” said Mr. Yeats. “And not so far off, I’d venture.”
“You know?” asked Trevor. “Do you?”
“I didn’t say that,” answered Yeats.
“But do you?”
“No,” he answered. “I don’t know.” Again, Yeats didn’t look back at Trevor as he spoke, rather addressing the trunk. “What happened here?” he said suddenly, and looked closer at the spot were John had scraped a sample, still exposing fresher bark.
“Where?” Trevor said.
“Here,” said Mr. Yeats, indicating the opening L with his hand, gnarled and liver-spotted. “And here. And here,” now inspecting the Y and the final T. Then he re-scrutinized each letter in turn to make sure there were no other violations. Took his time, too.
“That’d be John’s samples,” said Trevor.
Mr. Yeats made no reply, not until he had finished his scrutiny.
“Samples?” he said then, no longer entirely friendly.
“My friend John works as an investigator, and also has an interest in trees,” Trevor explained. “They’re his hobby. He was curious, too.”
“What would he want with samples?”
“He is going to run some tests on them, to see what might have been used to make those letters.”
When Mr. Yeats said nothing, Trevor asked, “What do you make of the last five letters, then?”
Mr. Yeats took a brief look at his watch, then said, “The missus will be wondering what could have happened to me. I had better get back. Good day to you, Mr. Trevor.”
With that the old man gave Trevor a stiff bow and set off toward the road and its few houses, one of them presumably his. Trevor watched him recede for a while then looked back at his tree.
Chafed, more like.
John did not get back in town until the following Wednesday, but then with some strange news. He would have called, he said, right away, but he wanted to make sure—which in John’s line of work meant double, triple checking.
“There are traces of blood in the first two samples,” he informed his friend. “But none in the last.”
“Blood?” Trevor wanted to make sure he heard that right.
“Blood. No doubt about it,” his friend said. “The L in ‘love,’ and the Y in ‘thyself,’ they both have traces of blood—and I had them run it three times—while the T, the one in ‘last,’ hasn’t any.”
“Blood,” Trevor repeated. “Now, that’s odd, isn’t it? I mean, what on earth do you make of that?”
“I don’t know,” John replied. “I’ve asked them to run one more test to determine whether the blood is human.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. I just assumed, but it could be pig’s blood or something, right?”
“Yes, it could be.”
“Maybe some sort of ritual thing?”
“I don’t know. Could be.”
“But you don’t think so?”
His face was wet with pain. Bruised by pain. Grimaced in pain.
Teeth, a sheen of bone nearly ghostlike in the fading light, bearing down on the wood in his mouth. His eyes stood out, fixed on the vertical line and on the tip of bone that was now quite visible in his forefinger. He bit down again on the wood, soggy now and thick and worn, and placed the bone at the top of the line and then pressed, and traced again from top to bottom, the stem of L.
Bearcliff calls itself a town, but that is a stretch. A village, yes, and a large one at that; but town? The signs at each end of the wide and admittedly rather long, if winding, Main Street both claim it is: Welcome to the Fair Towne of Bearcliff, in determined, and annually repainted, letters.
Those who live there say it is—except, that is, for the surrounding farmers who still remember its full name (and by which it is still known on most maps): Bearcliff Hamlet, and who still think of it as one.
Those who travel through it assume it is a town—that is if they catch the signs (which admittedly are hard to miss), and can read them. As for the rest of the world, Bearcliff is more than likely just another village, if indeed it exists at all.
Entering Bearcliff from the north, once you’ve passed the sign—a three feet by two oak tile creaking in the wind on un-oiled hinges—there’s the tanner’s, the school and a tavern on your left, a smithy, a guesthouse, and another tavern on your right. None of these buildings is very new, except for the school which was built in 1812, recent as Bearcliff goes.
Continuing down the unpaved Main Street there are more taverns, two haberdashers, three grocers, two more guesthouses, another guesthouse which calls itself a Hotel, two more taverns, then two more. And before you reach the southern sign—the same size, and the same un-oiled creaking—there’s the mill, another smithy, two competing carpenter shops (word has it their owners have not spoken to each other for two full generations), and one final tavern.
This a town? From any distance at all it appears more like a gathering of some large some small houses disturbing the countryside; but once you’re there, well it could be.
Of course, scattered among these various commercial establishments, you find the regular houses, housing the residents; residents like Alinda.
Alinda and her irritating younger brother Seaghan, whom Colin has to bribe every so often to keep him from squealing—to be sure, he’s got candy set aside for that very purpose.
Alinda is a Scottish name, she likes to tell him. Her family comes from Edinburgh, she likes to tell him, too. Her father has the accent to prove it, and the name: Fergus. Fergus Leslie. And if word ever gets to Fergus Leslie, about him and Alinda kissing—by way of Seaghan no doubt—he’d be in for it. So the two rules are: be very careful and bring candy.
Well, if Edinburgh is so wonderful, he’d tease her, why’d your dad leave all that wonderfulness and move all the way to Sussex? And she’d answer—with no hesitation at all, as if it were true; and in that voice, in that accent which was the miracle of the precise Scottish she had drunk with her mother’s milk tempered by the rolling hills of mellower English, which to his ears was not speaking at all, it was singing, it was giving the air a gift each time she spoke—and with those gifts she’d answer, she’d always answer, looking straight at him and explaining to him with her serious and oh, so lovely lips, in what had become a little ritual: Didn’t he know? Her dad was appointed by the secret queen of Scots to settle the wild lands to the south and to see if the natives could be civilized, and if so, to let her know. It was, needless to say, a foregone conclusion that they could not. But miracles have been known to happen, and so Fergus Leslie was still here, still keeping his eyes open for any sign of native intelligence.
She was as tall as Colin. In fact, a hair taller—that’s what he suspected anyway; for he suspected that whenever, in their bare feet, they stood back to back to measure, she flexed her knees just that hair, just enough to make them come out dead even.
“Not even a little?”
“Not even an inkling.”
She was not thin—that was not the word; she was slender. That’s how Colin saw it. She was darkly haired, in a wild, untamable explosion of curls, no matter what she did to it, she’d complain. Oh, that she’d ever do anything to it, he thought or said, it was perfect just the way it was, and he’d tell her exactly that.
And now she was nineteen.
And promised to him.
Not that anyone else knew. Fergus Leslie would shoot him on sight if he did, and Myron, Colin’s dad, would likely not be all that amused either. The only one pleased might be Seona, Alinda’s mom, who did have a soft spot for him, that he could tell. But no one but they knew. It was their secret, two years old this June, whispered—though there were no other souls within at least two earshots (unless Seaghan was hiding somewhere near)—one fresh and sunny morning as they lay side by side at the edge of a meadow, gazing up at the clouds, rushing about, busy with spring—for she had come late that year, spring had, and now had much to do to get ready for summer.
It was a spring morning so springy you could almost feel the grass push up under you—annoyed at the obstruction—and hear the leaves, young and light and green with life, sprouting on the trees, unfolding thousands upon thousands light-green tongues to lap the sun.
All the while the birds chirped and chattered, some calling for mates, some just calling for the joy of it.
It was a perfect spring morning.
Perfect for whispering.
They had known each other since childhood, and on that particular day, as he abandoned the sky and shifted onto his side to face her, it was as if the question arrived on its own accord, willing itself—as the most natural thing in the world—to be asked, as just another face of spring.
“Would you be my wife, Alinda?” he whispered, barely loud enough to leave his lips.
But she heard him just fine. “Yes,” she whispered back, without leaving the sky. Then she smiled, to the sky, to herself, and finally turned to face him, to kiss him long and longingly, and the Devil take Seaghan, if he were anywhere near, he didn’t care.
They did not set a date, nor did they let anyone else in on the secret, though as of late, Seona seemed to smile a lot and he would not be surprised if she knew; mothers have strange motherly ways of knowing what daughters think or dream—or of finding out.
Perhaps his dad would not care one way or the other, perhaps he even knew, too, or at least suspected something—they were seeing an awful lot of each other, and they were no longer children—but still, Colin was not so sure he would not object, and thought it best to say nothing. After all, Myron Lawless was a lawyer, a well-respected man, and a rung or two above Fergus Leslie’s station. He might not see Alinda as a good match.
Besides, Myron Lawless had money and Fergus Leslie, a smith by trade, had none; or at least—according to Alinda—none to spare.
His mom would have cared, though, he was sure of that; she would have cared very much, had she still been alive. Though he didn’t remember much about her, not many of the details, she was still very real to him, the smell of friendliness.
She had been sickly, his dad had explained to him once he was old enough to understand; her lungs, and when Colin was a little over three, she lay down one day, exhausted she said, and she never got up.
She had stayed in bed, in the very bed his dad now slept in alone, for a little over a month, then she passed away.
Consumption, said the doctors.
He could remember lying by her side in that big bed, she wanted to have him near, asked him to come and nestle up against her, hotter than he, much hotter than he, with a sweet friendly smell, and gentle hands that would play with his hair, making little rivulets with her fingers, that’s what he remembered. Not much else.
But based on that, and on the two paintings in his father’s bedroom—one of her as a girl, and one of her as a bride, Myron proud, and a little drunk, he would tell Colin, to her right—he had formed a complete person: a loving, trusting, caring person whom Colin still longed for now and then, and whom he had cried for often as a child, though never so loudly that his dad would hear.
And she added up to friendliness; added up to loving Colin more than anyone or anything in the world. And to being gone now.
She would have cared, he was certain of that, and she would have been very happy. For Alinda was a wonderful girl. So clever and thoughtful and beautiful, and so promised; and if his mother could have heard her speak, that gift of a voice to color the air.
As for Colin himself. He was tall—though perhaps not quite as tall as Alinda—and thin, scrappy his dad said, here have some more meat, and some bread too, and don’t skimp on the butter. He was a quick wit; read anything he could lay his hands on. Quick with figures, quicker still with his tongue, which often got him into trouble, especially at school and sometimes with his dad.
“You should try, perhaps, just once in a while, to think before you speak,” Alinda would suggest.
He promised he would try, but he never quite succeeded.
To his father’s mind there was no question about what Colin would do, or what he should study. He should study the law, just like Myron had. Good thing to have under your belt, Son. It’s a damn exclusive club.
And that is how, in the fall of 1838, Alinda and Colin came to be separated for weeks at a stretch. For Myron Lawless had friends who had friends, who in turn had friends, and so, that autumn—Colin had now finished secondary school—he moved north to London to attend King’s College on the Strand, best bloody law school in the country, claimed his father, who himself had gone to King’s College, though not in London.
Although they were only an afternoon’s coach ride apart, and had indeed intended—Colin had promised—to see each other every weekend, school pressures soon took over and Colin was happy to be able to catch the afternoon to Brighton by way of Bearcliff once a month, if that. Alinda, though, understood. It’s for the better, she’d say, and then she would add that she was very proud of him, her husband to be.
Colin was an excellent student. Outstanding, as a matter of fact.
If God ever used His blueprint for the legal mind, one of his teachers said about Colin, He used it when He made Colin.
Still, though he found school interesting, and though he enjoyed his studies—as students will always enjoy things they are good at—his visits with Alinda were still the highlights of his life. Their talks, their kisses, their—yes, the word was friendliness. Not that he confused her with his mother, but her friendliness, her understanding, filled a deeper need, made him whole. And her fingers would play with his hair at times, making little rivulets, while she thought out aloud about something she had read, or had thought, or had dreamed. Hearing her speak was living. Talking with her was life. That was the best way he could explain it to himself: that he felt the most alive he ever felt when he was around her, when he was with her, when he was sharing. Not even touching, so much as talking. A friend, a wife. And at those times he knew himself to be a very fortunate man.
During his second year at law school it began to dawn on Colin just how exclusive this club he was preparing to join was.
“It’s as if I were being groomed for some sort of shadow government,” Colin tried to convey his impression one day.
“What is a shadow government?” Alinda wanted to know.
“On paper, it consists of those of the opposing political party that would rule, were they in power. Though,” added Colin, with a little smile, almost of embarrassment, “I wonder if the roles are not reversed. I wonder if this country is not actually run by the lawyers.”
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” offered Alinda with a warm smile at the thought.
“It had crossed my mind,” he answered.
“That perhaps you sometimes wish I was studying something else.”
“Dad is not overly fond of lawyers, that’s true,” she answered. “But I don’t mind them much, especially not the budding ones.”
“Really, though,” said Colin. “It is strange feeling. Dad once said that it’s a damn exclusive club.”
“What is? The lawyers club?”
“Yes. Almost like a secret society of sorts, though no one will say so. It’s like a current—an undercurrent rather—of understanding between lawyers. And it seems like my school is built on, that it rests on this undercurrent. Though I’m not sure yet what it is I’m to understand. Dad certainly seems to know, though, and the professors seem to know, too. Even some of the students seem to have caught on.”
So, she turns to him and looks him right in the eyes and asks, “Is it what you really want to do, Colin?”
And it’s when she asks questions like that, honestly and deeply wanting to know, that he has to stop and think—one of the few times he actually had to, for nothing but the truth would serve. “I don’t know,” was his reply. “It’s what dad has wanted me to do for as long as I can remember. There was really never any other choice. He’s paying for school and board. He’s preparing me for real life, he says.”
“But it’s not what your heart yearns to do?” she said.
“Let me tell you what my heart yearns to do,” he said and didn’t answer her question.
She laughed and made a weak show of fending him off.
Myron Lawless, Esq., knew some friends, who knew friends, who in turn knew someone who sat on the Railroad Planning Committee, and this, as it turns out, would prove a very profitable source of intelligence.
Whispers in his circles had it—and had or some time now—that the route for the London to Brighton railroad through the local area had narrowed to two choices: either by way of Bearcliff, or by way of Greyfield. Knowing which, for a fact, would mean a fortune.
And Myron Lawless now knew which.
It had cost him. Oh, it had cost him dearly, but it was money well spent. The RPC, according to his source—although the final, and public determination would not be made for another two years—had decided, and their choice was Bearcliff. Well, let’s rephrase that, said his source, the decision, per se, has not been made of course, but the Committee is leaning so far in the direction of Bearcliff as to have virtually toppled over. Really, only the formality of the public announcement remained: and he could take that to the bank.
With a grin and a drink up.
And since his source had always proved correct on other important matters—though none as important as this—that was all the affirmation Myron Lawless needed to put his plan in motion.
Bearcliff, still beating with a hamlet heart, was not a sophisticated town and did not much concern itself with trains and such—strange goings on in London to be sure, but nothing good will come of it, mark my words.
It was also, for the most part, in need of ready cash, which suited Myron Lawless just fine. Representing himself—though surreptitiously—he now set out to acquire as much Bearcliff real estate and surrounding land as he could afford. Some parcels he bought from the bank—foreclosures at bargain prices—others through midnight deals with unofficial deeds signed and witnessed—to be recorded later, he did not want to raise any kind of flags.
The farmers who sold him their land—to be leased back to them, of course, to work—were as a rule none the wiser, and if any questions were raised, solicitor Lawless had the gift of the gab, and he had it in spades. Besides, it was all legal, strictly; just not recorded, not just yet, on some pretext or other that the farmer did not understand, but pretended to.
And now, Myron Lawless, Esq., his not inconsiderable wealth duly invested, stood to make, literally, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds once the RPC made its public announcement.
Late one evening in May of 1841 Myron Lawless finally told his son. They had finished dinner. Alinda had gone home. The cook had retired. Myron was sipping a brandy and smoking a cigar. Colin, not really that fond of liquor, nevertheless brought the glass to his lips now and then, wetting his lips, but burning his tongue.
“Have you heard of Trevithick’s invention?” he asked his son apropos of nothing in particular, studying his snifter and the sparkling liquid within.
“Who hasn’t?” said Colin.
“Well, quite a few people have not,” he said. “Especially round here.”
“Well, that’s hardly surprising.”
“Listen,” he said, then returned the sifter to the table, and relit his cigar. “I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
Colin looked up at him, and shifted in his chair.
“I’ve made some investments lately.”
Colin didn’t answer, just looked at him, waiting for more. An excellent trait, thought Myron, he’ll make an excellent lawyer.
“I have bought a few buildings, and a sizeable amount of land in and around town.”
Still, his son did not reply.
“And yes, there is a connection.”
“The railway,” said Colin.
Myron smiled. “That’s my son. You’ll go far.”
“But no one knows, for sure,” he said. “The RPC will not decide for some time yet. It’s well over a year away, from what I understand.”
“So it is,” said Myron. “By the RPC charter, the Committee will make the route to Brighton known the first Monday of 1843. But this is where the word ‘speculation’ finds a good use, for the percentages, from what I can ascertain, are stacking up ninety for and ten against.”
“That’s not what they think at school.”
“What do they think at school?”
“Handcross, Balcombe, Staplefield, Greyfield.”
“Speculation,” he said, stressing the word. “There’s nothing at all wrong with that, as long as you speculate right.”
Colin didn’t answer right away. “Bearcliff,” he said then, as if to himself. “That would be something, wouldn’t it?”
“Ever mentioned? I mean, at school, as a possibility?”
“Once or twice, perhaps, but never seriously.”
“Good. Oh, excellent,” said Myron.
Colin looked back up at his dad, concerned. “And you’re sure?”
“Sure enough,” and then finished his brandy.
“How much property have you bought?”
“More than enough,” said his father.
John called Trevor that Friday evening just before six to say he was on his way over. The blood tests were back, he said. He had some news. Then he hung up before Trevor had a chance to ask him about it; John obviously just making sure Trevor was home.
Trevor was in the kitchen fixing tea when the doorbell rang. “It’s open,” he said, loudly enough. John heard and let himself in. He joined Trevor in the kitchen and sat down at the large, stocky kitchen table.
“It’s human,” he said without preamble.
“The blood is?” Trevor turned from the stove to face him.
“Beyond a doubt.”
Trevor set the cups out and poured the tea. Found a couple of scones in the pantry—not too stale—and put them out as well. John seized one, and ate with relish, then the other. He probably had not had his dinner yet.
John then reached for his satchel, took out the envelope with the prints of the tree and spread them out on the table top. Trevor fetched the desk lamp from his study to better light them.
“In fact,” John said between crumbly bites, “I’d wager that all of these letters, except the last five, bear traces of human blood.” The looked at the plate he had just cleaned, “Any more of these?”
Trevor was clean out of scones, but found and broke open a package of digestive biscuits.
“You have any idea?” he said, bringing the biscuits back to the table and handing them to John.
“No.” Gratefully accepting them and soon well into the first one.
“Does it make sense to you?”
Trevor looked them over, those increasingly mysterious letters, clearly visible in John’s photographs—the camera flash brought them out of the bark nicely: LOVE THYSELF LAST.
“There are fifteen letters in all,” he said. “Ten, we will assume then, with blood. Five without.”
“I’d stake a tenner on it.”
“Do you think we should test the remaining letters?”
“Not so sure I can. I’ve already had to call in one or two favors to have these done. The lab was not all that amused.”
“Right,” said Trevor.
“What occurred to me,” said John, “is that whoever carved—or chafed, rather—these letter into the bark, did not use a blunt instrument.” Then paused and helped himself to another biscuit, definitely making up for dinner.
Trevor said nothing, waiting for John to continue.
“What I think,” said John, “is that he used his fingers.”
Then he reached for yet another biscuit.
He knew he stem was done, for he had traced all the way through the bark to expose the lighter sapwood beneath. It was a vertical furrow, perhaps three inches long, the width of a finger and streaked with blood.
He stared at it, then lost it, then found it again and tried to focus, but in the diminishing light of evening and with the blood slowly drying as if willing the trace obscure, it grew harder to make out even as he stood there, squinting. It’d need washing. The blood, he thought, would need washing away. Water, he’d need to bring water, to wash the stain away, to let the stem shine with the sapwood beneath. The letters must shine; they must not be hidden. They must not be hidden. They must shine. I need water for that, he thought.
Strange to say, he had gotten used to the pain. It was not as sharp, as screaming, as before. It was more like some very bad weather spreading through his hand, from his bleeding finger, from the bone exposed, up through the knuckles and into the other fingers, as if warning them about what was to come. Flee if you can.
But there was still the foot of the L to go, and he had determined to finish the letter it before nightfall. Then he would bring water to wash it clean.
He had chewed through two twigs already. A third, a short but thick one, bark and all, now found its way between his teeth, which again clamped down as he pressed the tip of the damaged finger against the bark and traced the short horizontal line that would complete the L. And then again, and then again.
Trevor heard what John said, but could not picture it.
Well, he could conjure up the image, finger against bark, over and over, but the image was flat and academic, no depth. He could not imagine the pain, nor could he imagine anyone standing up under it, anyone continuing despite it. He did not have the resources to reify the picture; it remained theory. Finger against bark, pressure, motion, over and over. “Why would anyone?” he said at last.
“If that is what happened,” said John, “then he must have had a very good reason.” Then his mobile phone rang.
It was a quick conversation. John took down an address and then gave the caller Trevor’s address, they were apparently coming to fetch him.
“Darn,” he said, “some idiot’s got himself killed. Got to go.” He looked over the photographs on the table. “Can I leave them here?”
“Of course. I’d prefer it if you did.”
“Right then. Let’s continue this conversation.”
That was a sort of sign-off procedure between them whenever John was called out on a case, which literally could be any time, day or night, if he was on duty, as now.
Trevor heard the detective’s car speed away, and then the evening turned very still; as if that car was the last car in the world, and now it was gone too. Very still.
He returned to the kitchen table and the pictures. He looked them over one by one. Took his time. He could not, not for the life of him, imagine anyone. With his fingers. Still, the letters were there and someone had put them there. And there were John’s tests, and their results; not to mention John’s intuition, which as a rule was unnervingly accurate.
He helped himself to one of the biscuits and took in his reflection in the kitchen window. His thoughts wandered back to Mr. Yeats, and not for the first time that day. There was something about him that would not let go: his sudden—for it had been sudden, had it not?—departure. And he had taken offense at the sampling, at John’s knife scrapings disturbing the words. And at that he had changed, from warm to cold, just like that, and then left. Politely, to be sure, but abruptly nonetheless. As if, yes—and Trevor shivered slightly at the certainty—as if Mr. Yeats knew more about the carved words than he had told, and that he may even have been about to share this knowledge before he noticed John’s handiwork.
But the samplings changed his mind; as if they had trespassed, violated something and which in Mr. Yeats’ mind meant automatic exclusion from the club. Trevor looked back at the kitchen table and the display of pictures, and made up his mind.
He called information and yes, there was a Yeats in Glen Row, one Arthur Yeats, 54 Rowan Circle. Any other Yeats? Spelled like the poet, no. There was a Florence Yates, though, Y-a-t-e-s. Thanks, no that’s fine, Arthur Yeats is the one I’m looking for.
He dialed the number. An older woman answered. The old way, telling the caller what telephone number he had reached.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Trevor Brown, sorry to bother you this time of night, but I wonder if Mr. Yeats is in, please.”
“Just a moment.”
Trevor could her voice though the covered mouthpiece, “For you dear. A Trevor, someone. Brown, I think he said.” Then the clanks and scratches that telephone receivers make the other end when placed on a hard surface, no matter how carefully. Then steps on a bare floor, approaching. Then another set of sounds when the receiver was picked up again and brought to an ear.
“This is Arthur Yeats.”
“Good evening, sir. Sorry to bother you at this hour. This is Trevor Brown, we met last weekend, by that oak.”
“Do you remember me?”
“Yes, I do.”
It was clearly up to him to speak: Mr. Yeats was not meeting him halfway or anywhere near it. Oh, well, let’s just come out and say it.
“The carving, ‘love thyself last,’ the one we looked at.”
“You had seen it before, had you not?”
“Do you know who made it?”
“There are some opinions about that.”
“I must tell you, Mr. Brown, I was not at all pleased with you and your friend carving around in these letters. Disturbing them.”
“I thought as much. And I am sorry. We didn’t realize.”
“They’ve been there a long time, undisturbed. They deserve the rest.”
“Who do you think made them, Mr. Yeats?”
He didn’t answer for some time. Then he said, surprising Trevor, “What sort of tests?”
“My friend is a forensic investigator, well not an investigator, but he handles all the scientific details of a crime scene. He’s pretty expert.”
“And why would you want to investigate?”
“We were curious about how the letters were made.”
“I told you, rubbed.”
“Yes, but with what.”
“Rubbed,” repeated Mr. Yeats.
“The tests,” said Trevor. “They showed traces of blood.”
That hit some sort of mark, for Mr. Yeats said nothing for so long Trevor wasn’t sure he hadn’t hung up.
When he finally spoke he said, “Why are you curious?”
“I don’t know, really. I saw the letters by chance, I wondered what they said. Then tried to remember where Love Thyself Last was from. I thought perhaps it was from the Bible at first, then I found out it was Shakespeare. But I don’t think those carved letters were meant for Cromwell.”
“No, they were not.”
“And then you get to wonder who would have written them, and why.”
“What do you do, Mr. Brown?”
“You mean, work?”
“I assess the value of buildings.”
“Yes, that’s the word. And I’m pretty good with furniture, too.”
“Ah,” as if disappointed with my reply. Then asked, “Just idle curiosity, then?”
“More or less.”
“More or less?”
“Well, to be honest, Mr. Yeats, it’s probably a little more than less. For one thing, I am more than just idly curious about the last five letters, which are different from the rest, the ones that seem poured, and for another—I’m not sure how to say this, to be honest, and please don’t think me daft or anything—but at the time I had the feeling that the tree wanted me to see the letters.”
When Mr. Yeats spoke again it was as if Trevor had passed some sort of test. Could he come down and see him on Monday? he wondered. Sure, said Trevor, but how about tomorrow? He was free this weekend.
No, Mr. Yeats and the missus had plans.
He could not go on. He simply could not.
The foot of the L was almost done, almost to the sapwood now, but not quite. He had bit through his last twig, and was spitting out little pieces of bark and wet wood, looking at his finger in acute disbelief: thick now with pain, swollen and ugly, the bone bare and screaming with hurt. The very bad weather in his hand had turned raging storm now. Even the thought of touching the tree with it again added fire to the pain.
He had to rest, please God, he had to give it some time, just a little time, to heal, to catch its breath, to quell, before he finished the L. But first he had to find a bucket. Or a scoop, or a cup, or a flask, anything to hold water. He needed water to wash his letter. He needed to wash the letter, there was too much blood in the letter. They must shine.
Still spitting out little pieces of wood he left the clearing in search of dwellings, of barns, of places where a bottle perhaps had been tossed, or an earless cup. It was quite dark among the trees now, but the night lightened a little once he returned to the road and the open sky above. He could make out the early stars, and Venus, bright and friendless, and a bright, rising, waxing moon. He could not tell what time it was, and he had not brought a timepiece, but it was getting late, that he could tell.
Holding his injured right hand by the wrist, and trying to ignore the catastrophe of crushed bone and ripped muscle that once was a forefinger, he kept his eye on the ground in search for anything that could hold water.
What he found in the end was a ladle. He found it in a farmer’s barn at the edge of a field and away from the house—and the dogs sure to guard it—in a little room with the milk kegs. It was a wooden ladle, perhaps to skim the cream from last night’s milk before driving to market. He felt a slight pang at stealing it, passing quickly. Ladle in hand he left the barn, back on the road, and back to the clearing.
He would wash the letter before sleep, this he promised himself, several times, on his way back, but once he arrived he was too exhausted to even try. At the brook he drank several ladlefuls of the clear water—realizing how thirsty he was—then cleaned his finger as best he could. At the first ladle-full of cold water on the wound, Colin actually fainted: knives rushing from the icy contact and up his arm, closing the curtain of sight. But not for long, and now that he knew what to expect, he braced himself better. Another ladle-full, and one more.
Back in his lean-to, he managed to tear the lining out from his coat, and using his teeth, he tore several strips, to use for bandages. One strip he wrapped around and around his forefinger, bringing the rage of pain back, thought briefly of the laudanum but remembered his dreams and reminded himself of why he was there, and instead suffered the pain.
He lay down on the blanket and tried to sleep.
But sleep would not come, and so, for the rest of the night, he listened to the storm in his hand.
There was only one café in Glen Row. There were three taverns, that Trevor counted, but only the one café. Which explained Mr. Yeats’ somewhat cryptic suggestion for a meeting place: the café.
While parking near the entrance to the one story building, he could see the old man sitting by the large window, watching his arrival.
He stood up to greet him as Trevor entered.
“Mr. Yeats,” said Trevor, and offered his hand.
“Trevor,” he replied.
They sat down, and Trevor notice the old man wince slightly, then stretch.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Ah, at my age pains come and go. Then, sometimes, they don’t go.”
“They’re not really sure, spine, back, there’s a specialist for everything these days and they all seem to think the problem’s in their back yard. So I have had many solutions offered, to the point where I’ve stopped listening to the doctors and instead tried to make peace with the buggers.”
“No, the discomfort. It’s annoying though, can get on your nerves.”
“I can imagine.”
“Today’s a good day,” he said.
“What shall it be?” asked a waitress who seemed to simply materialize by their side, pad, pencil and all.
He looked up at the woman in surprise, middle aged, probably the proprietor cum waitress, he decided, then over at Mr. Yeats, what would he have?
“The usual,” he said.
“Coffee,” Trevor said. “Please. And, do you have sandwiches? Egg?”
“I’ll have one of those then.”
She withdrew, though not quite as spectacularly as she had appeared. Within a minute or so she was back carrying a small tray. Tea for Mr. Yeats, “Here you go, dear,” along with a cheese sandwich which she placed in front of him with care. Coffee and egg sandwich for me, also placed with care. Anything else? No, thanks, we’re fine.
Mr. Yeats ate in silence among the occasional wince, then wiped his mouth with a napkin from the little bronze dispenser. Then he took a deep breath.
“This,” he said, as he arranged himself a little more comfortably on the chair, “is the story of Colin and Alinda, as it was told me by my wife’s mother—that’d be my mother-in-law, who by all accounts is a witch, I can attest to that.”
This was said matter-of-factly, without a trace of humor.
The early morning had seen some rain, but the roof of his lean-to had kept it out surprisingly well for very little, if any, had found its way in. The moisture he felt came from the ground beneath, soft and damp with weather.
If he had slept at all, it was towards dawn, and even then only for those few moments when the rage in his hand subsided as if to catch its breath, to gather its strength, to soon return and startle him awake.
And now, the storm in his hand raging harder still, he wondered for just one brief, overwhelming moment, what on earth he was doing; but he remembered just fine, and so crawled out of his makeshift dwelling, careful not to put weight on his right hand.
Colin Lawless looked up from his plate, doing his best to keep alarm out of his face.
“Where did you hear that?” he asked.
He was in his fourth and final year at King’s College. He and Andrew, as good a friend as he ever could have hoped for, were taking their lunch at the Students’ Club—out on the recently opened veranda, the better to enjoy the fine spring weather. They were both members, of course, well-to-do fathers had seen to that. It was mutton for Andrew, cold kipper for Colin. Boiled peas, toast, tea for Andrew, coffee for Colin.
“Blake,” said Andrew between muttony bites.
“Jonathan Blake.” It was not a question.
Any other name would have allayed his sense of dread, that cold thing which had clawed its way in with the kipper and now threatened to show.
“And he? Blake. Where did he hear it?”
“From his dad, apparently. From what I heard.”
Curtis Blake, Jonathan’s father, sat on the Railroad Planning Committee. On the committee. He was not someone who knew someone who knew someone who attended one of their hearings: Curtis Blake was part of the bloody thing. Christ, talk about horse’s mouth.
He took another bite of his kipper. “Probably just a rumor,” he finally managed, casually like, chewing.
“No,” said Andrew, quite sincere, bright eyed and certain, “Not at all. Blake apparently said it was a done deal. Voted and all. Won’t announce it though until the new year.”
“Greyfield.” Colin took a sip of his coffee.
“Keep it under wraps, will you.”
The hardest thing he had ever done was to calmly finish his lunch, and then to chat with Andrew about this, that and the other for a while, as if the railroad news had been in no way catastrophic.
He left for Bearcliff the same afternoon.
Colin usually enjoyed the coach ride home. Once outside London he was back in the country, which, for all the comforts and sophistication of the city, he greatly preferred. And this was a day to enjoy. Just the occasional cloud, innocuous little things, keeping a respectful distance to the sun, spring in full advance beneath. A warm wind from the south stirring the linden and ash by the side of the road, small birds darting in and out of the trees busy home-making. It was a day of life returning en masse, moving back in.
A wonderful day, really.
But Colin saw none of it. He was counting days. He was counting eight months and thirteen days, that’s what they had, eight months and not quite a half to undo two years of careful planning and noiseless acquisitions. And if word got out—Hell, he thought, word was out. It had gotten to him. It would surely get to others.
As a rule, whenever Colin stepped off the London coach, he turned to his right and headed over to Alinda’s house to see her. This was in fact such a habit with him that he found himself a score or more steps in her direction before he caught himself, pulled up turned. This was not a day for Alinda. He must get to his father with the news. He would call on her later. And with his turning, his thoughts returned to ways to extricate his father from almost certain disaster.
Myron Lawless was not at home. Mary, the housekeeper, told Colin that his dad would be back for supper, but not sooner. No, she was not sure where he had gone to. He had called for a ride though.
A ride. That usually meant out of town for the day. Colin went up to his room to wait, to think and wait. That was all he could do. Sitting first, then standing, then sitting, then walking, then calling down for Mary to prepare some tea, no coffee, then hearing the doorbell tinkle and Mary answering. Yes, sweetie, he is in, upstairs. Just a moment, I’ll get him for you.
He took a quick look at himself in the mirror, brushed his hair back with his hand, straightened his necktie, smiled at himself the way he had often seen his father do, as if to inspect his teeth; he wasn’t sure why, it had become part of his own mirror ritual as well. They were all still there, wet and white. He went downstairs.
Alinda was in the study, waiting. Sitting. Almost formal. Not rushing into his arms.
“Sweetheart,” he said, and meant it.
“Colin.” She looked up at him, green eyes not really asking for an explanation, but telling him that one would nonetheless not be out of place.
“I am sorry,” he said. “This was unplanned. I have some urgent news for my father.”
Her eyes did not leave his, and she saw that he meant what he said, and that inside, yes—still, he was reeling. She saw this and whatever formality she had gathered to make a point softened, then melted, and she stood up among the soft rustle of dressy cloth to forgive him. He nestled his nose and closed eyes in the hollow between her neck and shoulder, his favorite place, warm and fragrant. How he wished he could melt into her and simply vanish. For there was no one, there was nothing on this Earth he loved more than her. Nothing.
Neither said anything for some time, nor did they let go. They were building their own world, and this was how they shored it up.
“I must get back,” she said suddenly and pulled away, as if waking up and just now seeing the time. “Mother is waiting. Janet just happened to mention she saw you step off the coach, and, well, we were getting ready to go visit Mrs. Kearse. I’m afraid I’ve already kept her too long; we’re probably going to be late.” She pecked him with a quick kiss, all forgiven now, and rushed out the door.
He did not return to his room; one floor was as good as another when it came to pacing. And on his feet he went over and over in his mind what he now was convinced they must do.
His father did not take the news well; rather, it was as if he had swallowed strong poison. First scarlet, then pale, his face, it seemed, drained of life. His large hand shook a little when he reached for his cup, and he thought better of lifting it.
Colin had to admire the effort it took his father to still his hand, lift the cup after all, slowly and smoothly, to his lips.
“The son of Curtis Blake?”
He drank slowly, then replaced the cup with the same effort of will. His hand was not his master. “If this be true,” he said, “we are in a spot of bother.” He tried to smile, did not succeed.
“If this be true,” said Colin, “and I believe it is, I think I know what we must do.”
His father listened, first obligingly—a father indulging his son, even under trying circumstances— then, as Colin outlined what he had arrived at as the solution, more and more attentively.
Outside, rain was now making good on its earlier threat and little streams of water gathered and rushed down the café’s large front window, small vertical rivers. An electric heater by their feet, stretching from door to wall, and running under the window, sprung to life with sharp squeaks of protest, and the room was soon quite warm. Trevor looked out again and thought for a moment he had left one of his car windows open, looked closer and saw it was closed after all.
Mr. Yeats had finished his story.
Despite John’s speculation that whoever had carved the letters might have used his fingers Trevor wasn’t sure how much of the story, if any, to believe, and he was at a loss for what to say. Now, he was scrambling for a balance of politeness and honesty, while Mr. Yeats looked at him for some sort of reaction.
When after a few more breaths Trevor still had made no reply, Yeats added, as if to give Trevor a hand, “I’m not saying it is true. I’m saying this is the story I was told by my mother-in-law.”
“But you believe it to be true?”
“As a matter of fact, yes, I do.”
After another little while Trevor’s thoughts finally found some purchase. “What was the name of the hospital?”
“Still about, is it?”
“Yes. As far as I know. Tunbridge Wells.”
After another spell of not knowing what to say, Trevor looked up from his hands and the white and blue cup they were fingering, shaking his head slowly, “I cannot imagine the pain. He cannot possibly have endured it. I mean, is it even medically possible?”
“Well, Mr. Brown. To be sure, I am no medical expert so I couldn’t say one way or another how much pain is too much pain to bear. I should think, though, that it varies, person to person, if you know what I mean. And circumstance to circumstance.”
“Yes,” said Trevor. “Yes. I know what you mean. You make a good point.”
Mr. Yeats nodded but did not reply. Something outside had caught his attention. “I think one of your car windows is open,” he said. “Better close it or you’ll be sitting in water.”
Trevor looked again. It was open. Damn. “Excuse me,” he said, and ran out to close it.
Back in the now rather too warm café, damp from the drizzle, Trevor ordered another coffee. He looked over at Mr. Yeats who shook his head, he was fine.
The coffee arrived. Steam curling its way up off that black surface. He reached for it, but changed his mind. Instead asked:
“And the last five letters?”
“That’s what she told me,” said Mr. Yeats.
“Yes, but how is that possible?”
“How is anything possible?”
“The Meadows?” said Trevor.
“Yes. Tunbridge Wells.”
Though the overnight rain had rinsed some of his blood from the stem of the L—it seemed more lucent than he recalled—it was nevertheless streaked still, and would have to be washed. So, he returned to his shelter for the ladle, scooped some from the brook, and returned to the tree. With his good middle fingers, he cleaned the line many times, until all he saw was fresh, light green, shining sapwood.
Satisfied, the brought the ladle back to his lean-to, then returned to the tree.
For some time, he studied the dirty—it was blood mostly—strip of cloth that did its best to hide the now deep and constant ache within from the world without. It would have to come off.
He grasped the end of the cloth and began to pull. For a few inches the cloth came off fine, but then he almost fainted from the pain as the cloth, clinging to the dried blood tore the wound open again, enraging it.
He fell against the trunk, then almost to the ground before regaining his balance. Now, with his back against the tree he gathered what courage he could find and unraveled another layer of the cloth, then another, while simply refusing to cry out. Then the finger stood bare: black, red, blue: a discolored scream—and fearing the bark against Colin’s back more than anything in the world.
Colin straightened himself and looked about for another twig to bite on. Found one, good and thick. Placed it between his teeth and bit down.
He then placed the terrified forefinger against the stem-end of the L’s foot, and pressed down hard to draw it again. He fainted from the pain and the ground caught him.
When he came to the sun stood high and there was not a cloud to be seen. He thought he saw angels sitting on the branches of the oak above him—young angels, more like fairies, and his hand didn’t hurt at all. In fact, he had no hand.
Then he fought his way back to the surface and stood up, the pain firmly back in place. He tried the L’s foot again, and again the blackness leaped for him and almost felled him, though not quite. His eyes filled with tears, he bit down harder, and pressed and traced the foot again, and again.
London’s real estate market was not exactly hopping at the moment, at least not in his part of the city; his next scheduled appraisal was not until Thursday. Still, he thought, he should get back, make some phone calls—make a lot of them in fact—remind a few agents about favors rendered in the past, line up a few more appraisals, fix to make some more money, his flat didn’t pay for itself.
Yes, that’s precisely what he should do, but instead he drove to Tunbridge Wells.
The Meadows, to believe the well-polished bronze plaque by the main door, was the first hospital in England built exclusively for the unfortunate of mind. That was the term used. It went on to inform him that the ground was broken in 1811, building completed 1814. The East Wing added 1855. A West Wing tagged on in 1903. It was deemed a historical monument, no less, by the Tunbridge Wells City Council in August of 1966, hence the plaque.
Impressed, he stepped back and looked up at the thick stone walls, at the jutting bay windows, at the gargoyles peeking back down at him from the edge of the roof, beaks open and claws bared, and damn if he didn’t begin to put figures to things to appraise the structure. He almost had to physically shake his head to stop himself. Boy, talk about habit.
It certainly was a nice building, well kept. Ivy neatly trimmed up to the third floor. He was still taking in the building, and the grounds, when he was addressed.
“Can I help you, sir?”
A nurse by the looks of her, stern but—he surprised himself to notice: cute—had come out the main door, which still stood ajar behind her.
“Yes. Well, I hope so.”
Yes, cute, but not very friendly. She said nothing, just stood there, not smiling, waiting for more.
The ball squarely in his court. “I was inquiring about a patient of yours. Well, a former patient.”
The true answer: idle curiosity—well, a wee bit more than idle—would, he would be willing to bet, not quite cut it.
“Research, actually,” he said. Lame to be true, but the woman was waiting, and was obviously growing impatient. The kind of impatient reflected on skin; hers, a little freckled, seemed to intensify.
“By what authority?” she said when she decided he had said his bit, nothing was to follow. Her voice was deeper than he’d expected; as if she were a heavy smoker, which she didn’t strike him as.
“This is a hospital, sir. We do not divulge patient information frivolously.” Nice stress on “frivolously.”
“This is not a current patient I’m talking about. He would have been here about a hundred and fifty years ago.”
That held her for a bit. The wind caught her uniform and rustled it faintly, and also caught some of her hair. She made as if to tuck it back in place, but did not follow through. She really was very pretty, perhaps even human underneath all that stern. Then, “Even so, sir.”
“Colin Lawless,” he said, and held out his hand.
Her face turned from not smiling to frowning, as if he had just blundered a deeply held protocol something terribly.
“Even so, sir,” she said again. Then added, “Mr. Lawless.”
“No. Oh, no. I’m sorry. I’m not Mr. Lawless, I’m Mr. Brown. Trevor Brown. It’s the patient who’s Mr. Lawless.”
And for a third time, but actually said afresh, “Even so.”
“Okay. All right. I see. What do I need?”
When she didn’t answer, he added, “In order to find out more about the patient, I mean.”
As it happened, this particular question came with a very precise answer, which she proved quite able to recite.
What she said was, “Request by sister hospital. Order by court. Request by police. Request by blood or legal relative.” Her eyes were light blue and her skin a little more freckled than he initially had noticed. Her hair, blond at first impression, had something blossomy about it. Tangerine? It went very nicely with the freckles.
Then added, “In writing.”
Then he thought: John! But said, “I see.”
She didn’t answer.
“Well, thanks then,” he said. “I’ll see myself out.”
That didn’t get a smile either. Just a nod; as in I heard you.
He walked back to his car and got in. Noticed, as he started it, that she was still standing on the steps, as if to make sure that he was indeed removing himself from the premises.
Even though Trevor, the following day, told him the whole story; the one related by Mr. Yeats, and then precisely what had taken place at The Meadows, John was not too keen on the idea.
“It’s the only way they’ll even let me in the door, apparently,” said Trevor.
“These requests are only to be used for official investigations.” He stressed the word “official.”
“Special forms,” he added, as if explaining this to a child.
“We are asking for medical records. They are strictly governed by law.”
“Even ones as old as this?” He meant the question, he didn’t know.
“By law, yes.”
“But you see what I mean, right? It’s not like we’re invading or violating someone’s privacy here. The man has been dead for a century and change.”
“Even so,” he said.
“That’s what the nurse kept saying,” said Trevor.
He told him. And added that she was quite pretty to boot.
“Even so,” said John.
“Look,” said Trevor. “I’m not even sure there ever was someone by the name of Colin Lawless. Can’t you at least find out that much? You know, does the hospital have records of a person by that name?”
This he agreed to do. Different form, not quite so official.
A week later The Meadows informed them—on well-designed and quite expensive stationary—that yes, medical records for a Colin Lawless did exist. And why, by the way, did Mr. Sinclair want to know?
“Now what?” said Trevor.
“Now what, what?” said John.
They were grabbing a quick lunch in one of the many American parodies that were mushrooming all over London these days. The menus even listed chips as French fries, for Heaven’s sake. Was there no end to the insults? And no room to sit. And, still, the place was packed. Trevor didn’t get it. John, though, relished the food for some reason and since keeping John in a good mood was paramount at the moment, here he was; paying for it, too.
“We ask for them, right?”
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
“Trevor.” John gave his friend an earnest look, meaning, look, I’m serious now. “I could get sacked for misusing a form requesting medical records. As in fired.” Then dug into his burger. Trevor sipped his coffee.
“Okay, I didn’t know that.”
“Well, it’s true. Finding out if they existed was one thing. Though I could get sacked for that, too.”
“No?” said Trevor, genuinely alarmed.
“Well, no,” said John; then took another bite. John really shouldn’t like this food, thought Trevor, but instead said, “But actually requesting them?”
Trevor had to concede. He could not ask his friend to outright break the law, to risk his job. He still paid for the lunch, though. Put it down as a bad investment.
When Trevor returned from his appraisal later that afternoon, there was a message from John on his machine.
“From a Doctor Wesley,” John said. “I’ll bring it over tonight if you’re home.”
A letter. Mentioning Colin Lawless.
The L was done. The stem, the foot, all of it down to sapwood. And now, with water from the brook, gently carried in his ladle, he washed the letter free of blood, and then stood back to better see.
L, it said. Clear as the day. A capital letter L. The first letter.
He returned to the brook and washed his forefinger, or what was left of it, in the clear, clean water; the chill of it intensified the fire, turned scream anew, filling his blood all the way to his elbow. Again, he nearly fainted. And again, tears forced to his eyes, then down his cheeks, collaborating with pain to please, please: did he have any sense left to come to?
Back in his lean-to, and ignoring the fire, and the tears, he bound the stumpy finger with another strip of his coat lining, sending new screams up his arm. Finished, he looked at his hand in removed wonder: how could so much hurt come from such a familiar thing, how was it even capable of it? He had known this finger all his life. How could it generate such a big hurt, spanning most of the sky?
But even though so fierce and huge, the pain—such a constant presence now, just like weather—seemed less unfriendly. For all the hurt, it seemed to him like breathing, like something you cannot imagine yourself without.
A world without air, no. A world without pain, no
He returned to the brook, drank several ladlefuls of the cool water, then brought back one more ladleful and gave it to the L, lest it too was as thirsty as he was. Water agreed with it. No traces of blood left, shining now with the bare flesh of tree.
The letter was written in a small, precise hand on The Meadows expensive, off-white stationary. It was short and to the point. “Dear Mr. Sinclair,” it began.
“My name is Charles Wesley. I am one of the resident doctors at this hospital. It has come to my attention that you made inquiries about one Colin Lawless.” Trevor was reading it aloud.
“I, personally, am quite curious,” he continued, “as to why.”
And finished, “Please call me.” With the added note of, “At your convenience, of course.”
Then a phone number. Then a yours truly.
“What do you make of that?” asked John.
“Not unfriendly,” said Trevor.
“No, it isn’t, is it?”
“Doesn’t sound, you know, very official.”
“No, it doesn’t, does it?”
Trevor called the number in the letter the following day. After a few moments and clicks, the doctor answered in what Trevor thought of as a large voice—deep and housed in an impressive frame.
“Wesley,” it said. A little rushed, perhaps.
“This is Trevor Brown, a friend of John Sinclair’s.”
“Yes?” Not making the connection, yet.
“It’s about the letter. The one about Colin Lawless.”
“Ah,” now making the connection. “Mr. Sinclair.”
“John Sinclair is my friend, he made the inquiry on my behalf.”
“And you are?” A little guarded.
“My name is Trevor Brown.”
“Trevor Brown.” As if tasting the name.
“Were you here recently?”
“As a matter of fact, I was.”
“You were asking about Colin Lawless.”
“Yes, I was.”
“And who is Mr. Sinclair?”
“He’s a friend of mine, in the police department.”
And at the point it seemed that everything added up for Dr. Wesley. “Ah, now I see.”
“I hope you don’t mind,” said Trevor.
The doctor didn’t answer that, but he had turned friendly by the time he asked: “How did you come across Colin Lawless?”
Trevor told him.
“I think you should see the file for yourself,” said Dr. Wesley. Then he asked, “Are you a fast reader?”
“Reasonably.” Not that he really knew. People don’t test these things.
Well, did he want to come down this Saturday, perhaps drive down Friday afternoon? They could put him up.
Trevor accepted without hesitation.
Tongues wag, that was Colin’s observation and conviction, and it was also the backbone of the plan. And if no tasty bits found their way onto tongues to wag about, well, some tasty bits could be dreamed up and placed within lapping distance.
There was no doubt in Colin’s, nor in his father’s mind, that the Greyfield railway news would reach many ears, just like it had reached Colin’s. And soon, as the word spread, hordes of speculators—armed with this fresh intelligence and stacks of money—would descend on the town of Greyfield with lucrative offers. Their task, according to Colin’s plan, was for he and his father to gender another, opposing rumor, as strong, and twice as believable, to the effect that, no, actually, the railroad would pass through Bearcliff; in fact, the contract for the station had already, albeit secretly, been awarded. Myron Lawless should know; he had brokered the deal.
That, of course, was a lie, but it made for good wagging.
Colin was to work his mates and his teachers. His father was to work his clients, friends, and associates. Colin with sheer rumor. Myron with hints and guesses, meaty enough to suggest, elusive enough to make them wonder: does he know? Of course, if he knew for certain, he would not tell, so there was no way of telling.
And they did get tongues wagging.
A couple of weeks later Colin arrived at school one morning in a new suit, smartly cut. The shirt, cravat and hat were also new. None of them ostentatiously expensive, though not far from it—a first cousin to wealth. As if he were trying to not show off.
Andrew, sitting on one of the well-worn stone benches in the school garden, spotted him and gave a low whistle. “What’s the occasion chum?”
“Not sure, to be honest,” said Colin, sitting down next to him. Father sent up a tailor last week, with instructions. All I had to do was stand still and not mind the pin pricks.”
“Dad’s doing all right then, is he?”
“No complaints from that direction.”
“It’s true then?”
“Is what true?”
Andrew actually lowered his voice in a conspiratorial gesture. “You know, Bearcliff.”
“What about Bearcliff?”
“You mean you haven’t heard?”
“Heard what, Andrew?”
“The way I hear it, your dad has made some damn prudent real estate investments lately, and that he has won the contract to build the new station.”
“Oh, that.” Colin shook his head. “The rumor I heard was that Dad brokered the station deal, not that he won it. And, as far as I know, that rumor isn’t true either.”
“You’re saying your dad isn’t about to become richer than the Queen?”
Colin shook his head. “I’m saying, not that I know of. And I’m sure dad would have told me if he were.”
“Or not?” suggested Andrew. To which Colin simply shrugged his shoulder.
“You would tell. If you knew, I mean?” Andrew was still whispering, although there was no one within earshot.
“Of course,” said Colin.
Truth be told, he didn’t feel all that happy about deceiving Andrew. They were chums. But he was consoled by the fact that Andrew had nothing to lose. His dad was abroad making his fortune in New York somewhere, the state, not the city. Buffalo, or some such animal. Or Bison. And his mom, quite wealthy in her own right, was not one to speculate on railways. So no harm would come to him or his parents. Still, it was a deception, one to fan the rumor flame. Yes, one for the greater good, but still, he was misleading his friend.
“Colin, where are you?”
Alinda reached over, and her hand brushed some strands of hair out of his eyes. “You seem a million miles away.”
“School,” lied Colin.
“It’s getting to you,” she said. “Why? You used to like it so much.”
“Yes. I know. I still do. But there’s a stretch of hard exams coming up. A thousand pedantic rules to remember. Some of the professors care not a farthing about whether you understand the law or the rule or its purpose. As long as you can remember it. Verbatim. And you have to remember who put the law on the books, which case, and when. Sometimes I feel more like a repository, or a library, than a person.”
She stroked his hair back into his eyes with a flourish and a short laugh. “I’ll fix you some tea,” she said and stood up.
He watched her head for the kitchen. As tall as ever. As beautiful as ever. As promised as ever. And these days even Fergus seemed friendlier than usual; looked at him, if not as a son-in-law, then at least as not completely out of the question. And Seona, all smiles and the occasional indecent joke even. Don’t mind her, Alinda would say, blushing, she’s from Crail, they don’t know manners up there. Too much fish.
What got to him the most was that she trusted him. Trusted him so implicitly that she even believed his evasive answers. For he could not tell her. He must not tell her. Myron had made that very clear, and he had agreed. This had to stay between father and son, at any cost; at any cost. And “any” was a very encompassing word.
And all she would have to do to unmask him was to look into his eyes and delve into him as he knew she could, and she would see that he was lying. But there was no need for that, apparently; no need at all. For she loved him. She believed him. She trusted him, implicitly. And that is what hurt him the most: he had never in his life lied to her, and now he had to, and was.
She returned with tea and something her mother called bannocks, delicious cakes which Seona knew he liked. “This’ll take your mind off of school,” she said. “And if that doesn’t do it,” she said with a glance toward the stairs and her room above, and smiled.
Jonathan Blake was shorter than Colin by a full hand, but he had at least a stone or two on him in weight. Not fat, just, well, massive. And manners to match.
“What’s this rot about Bearcliff?” he demanded, and so loudly that most faces in the refectory stopped chewing and turned their way. All five foot and a half of him very indignant.
“That’s the word for it,” confirmed Colin, then took another bite, chewed, and looked back up at Blake. “Rot.”
“Not what I hear,” said Jonathan.
“Have a seat,” said Colin, still chewing, and pointed to the opposite side of the table with his fork. No rancor, a proper invitation. Blake obliged, and sat down by Andrew, who had to shift to his left to make room on the bench.
Colin swallowed, then took a sip of his milk. “What do you hear?”
“I hear that your dad arranged the contract for the new station. At Bearcliff, no less. Or that he’s actually going to build the damn thing, depending on who you believe.”
Colin looked suitably alarmed, betrayed even—by a father who had not confided in him. “No,” he said. “No.” He shook his head, put the milk-cup back on the table, then shook his head some more. “No. That is not true. He would have said something. We’re chums.”
“It’s even gotten back to my father,” said Blake, as if his father was the only one who counted, “and he’s going to put a stop to this nonsense.”
With that Jonathan Blake gathered his God knows how many stones and stood up, shaking the table slightly in the process—no mean feat, since it was thick and made of oak so solid it would probably sink in water.
“Nice fellow,” said Andrew. Colin nodded.
There was really nothing wrong with Blake, he was honorable enough, if a bit rudimentary. A little too direct, sometimes, even with his teachers, which got him in trouble—and into the students’ good books—on occasion.
Cut from the very same cloth as his father.
Myron, reading glasses on his nose, was reading the article aloud to his son, not that Colin hadn’t already read it a few times. The heading: “No truth to Railroad Rumor.” And the first paragraph: “According to a statement issued by the RPC (Railroad Planning Committee) Secretary, Curtis Blake, Esq., there is absolutely no truth to a recent rumor that the London to Brighton railroad is going to pass through the town of Bearcliff, Sussex. His statement goes on to say that as previously announced, in order to curb financial speculation, the exact route will not be made known until the new year, on Monday, January the 2nd, 1843.”
It was in the early papers. Jonathan Blake, a smug grin on his face, had handed Colin a copy of The Times as he arrived at school that morning. Colin read it through, lost his breath for a while, collected himself, looked down at Blake and said, “I know. It’s what I’ve told you. Remember?”
The first coach to Bearcliff that Thursday was the Brighton ten o’clock, and Colin was on it. He read the article again, and again. Until he knew it almost word for word.
Still, he listened to his father attentively, concerned about how he would take it—in truth, still also a little concerned about his own reaction: for he was elated. Not so his father.
And the next paragraph: “It has come to the RPC’s attention that it is now widely speculated that the RPC has settled on the township of Bearcliff in Sussex as a waypoint along the London to Brighton railroad; that the Committee had, in fact, already commissioned the building of a station in Bearcliff, and that the construction is soon to begin.
“‘The Committee,’ Mr. Blake goes on to say, ‘cannot deny this rumor in strong enough terms. There is no substance whatever to this purported intelligence.’”
His dad looked up from the reading, not a little pale. He looked at Colin who kept his face impassive, listening. Then he looked back at the paper and continued reading, “Mr. Blake closes his statement by reiterating that whereas the RPC is bound to keep the actual route of the London to Brighton railroad undisclosed until the new year, it wishes to denounce, in the strongest possible terms, this unfounded, though seemingly widely held, rumor.” He looked up at his son again, a little stunned. Then back at the paper in his hand.
“Signed, ‘John Walter, Editor,’” he added. Then fell silent.
“This will reach all interest parties,” said Colin. “By tonight, at the latest.”
“So this is it?” said his father.
Colin said nothing.
“I sold a fifth Bearcliff lot this morning,” said Myron Lawless with little enthusiasm. Then, with a strained chuckle, “At good profit, mind you.”
“And how are the Greyfield acquisitions coming along?”
“Not well,” he said, while removing his glasses. He placed them on the little side table to his right, and rubbed his temples with his fingers, then the bridge of his nose. “Not at all well. Johnson, Clarke, Evans, you know them, have pretty much locked up Greyfield. They remain convinced Greyfield is the better bet and are not selling, not to anyone. Not at anything near affordable prices, anyway.”
“And this?” said Colin, pointing at the article.
“Why are you smiling?” said his father.
“Because,” said Colin, who had thought this through, and through again, on his way down, and who had grown more and more convinced that he was correct in his estimation, “I think Curtis Blake has just played beautifully into our hands. Done us an impressive favor.”
“And what would that be, precisely?”
“That would be that Mr. Blake denies Bearcliff too vehemently. A plain statement of denial, I think, would have served his purposes much better. By getting this indignant about it; by being this—well, what’s the word, defensive, perhaps—about it, it gives the impression that he has something to hide. Meaning, then, that the rumor is true and he’s clamoring to deny it, at all costs. The cat must not appear to be out of the bag.”
“The Bearcliff rumor? Our rumor?”
“Yes, Dad, I think so. Now, perhaps public opinion shall need a little nudging in that direction, I don’t know, but I’m convinced that the mere fact that our estimable RPC Secretary saw fit to speak for the Committee on what after all is just a rumor, will be seen as an attempt to hide the truth.”
“The truth being Bearcliff?” said his father, as he smiled for the first time that evening.
“The truth being Bearcliff.”
As it turned out—clever minds being what clever minds are when they are being very clever—public opinion needed no help. Colin’s prediction held true and over the next few months Myron Lawless, with the able assistance of his son and what seemed like a small army of intermediaries sold most of his Bearcliff holdings at three or four times what he had paid for them, much of it—via their intermediaries, of course, for on the surface no one was buying or selling anything—to Johnson, Clarke, and Evans, now convinced that Bearcliff was indeed the decided upon route; while at the same time acquiring—from the same three partners, eager to offload their bad holdings—what in the end turned out to be a sizeable portion of Greyfield, both in and around the only logical place for a station, the lowland just west of Main Street, and those of the outlying areas, which would surely be developed for housing and industry once the railroad arrived.
That fall Colin spent more time in Bearcliff than in school, and was reprimanded for it several times by his professors. But, as he never failed to show up for his exams, and since he invariably scored well on them, they let it slide.
By December that year, the only Bearcliff property Myron Lawless still held title to was his home. His Greyfield holdings were now three times what they had once been in Bearcliff, and most of it paid in full from profits. All that was needed now was the official announcement.
It was coming on Christmas. The nights were frosty and there had even been some snow. For Colin and his dad all the pieces were in place. All they needed now was the RPC proclamation. That would be the cap, the crown. Affirmation. And time, as it is wont to do under such circumstances, took its sweet time.
Alinda and Colin were sitting in the Lawless library. That is, Colin was sitting, Alinda was not. Too restless to sit, she was pacing the room slowly. Stopping now and then to look down at him.
“What?” he said. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s like you’re on a journey, away from me,” said Alinda.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“This, this business with the railroad, that you don’t want to talk about, but which is all you and your dad ever seem to concern yourselves with, it’s taken you, and carried you off. Is still carrying you off, away.”
“No, sweetheart, it has not. It is not.”
She shook her head. Then, all serious, straight into his eyes. “Do you still want to marry me, Colin?”
He did not hesitate, and he was very glad to know that he spoke the truth, “Yes, Alinda. More than anything.” Well, perhaps the more than anything was a little untrue, though not much. More than anything he wanted January the 2nd to come, and the announcement to appear, but after that, there was nothing, not anything in the whole world, he wanted more than to marry Alinda. Nothing.
She came over to him and sat down in his lap, surprising him, as always, how light she felt though she was still as tall as he was. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pulled back her head a little and looked into his eyes. “Yes, Colin Lawless, you still want to marry me. Then, why won’t you take me with you on your journeys? Why won’t you share?”
“It’s only that I’ve promised, I’ve told you that. I’m helping my dad a little, but he asked me not to say anything to anyone about it, including you.”
“Yes, I know. But it is here, Colin Lawless,” and she tapped him on his chest, over his heart, “that you are not quite frank with your wife-to-be. It is here that it is more than just helping your dad a little. Whatever you are doing has stolen a piece of your heart from me, and I want to make sure that after your doings are finished you plan to return it. Your heart is mine, Colin Lawless, all of it, and I am a jealous keeper.”
“There is no cause for jealousy, you know that Alinda.”
“I know there are no other women.”
“Business, too, can be a mistress.”
“No, Alinda. No.”
“Please don’t deny that, Colin. There was a time, not even twelve months ago, where you never stepped off the Brighton coach without then coming directly to my house. You know, when I saw the coach climb the hill—I’d see the coachman’s whip first, standing like a thin banner, then either the coachman’s head or the luggage on top of the coach, depending on how crowded the coach, then the coachman himself, then the horses. And when I saw the horses, when I could see the horses, I knew the minutes it would take for the coach to arrive. And I knew the minutes it would take you to walk and sometimes run, to me. And I’d count them, and there you’d be, often as not out of breath.”
Colin didn’t answer. He didn’t look at her. For he knew where this was leading.
“Of late, Colin, not once, have you come to me first. You have come straight here, to your father’s, and often as not I now come to your house to greet you.”
Yes, undeniably true.
“Not that it matters, Colin, not really. I would walk the Earth to greet you. But the change matters. It is you that matters, and this business is stealing a part of you.”
“Darling,” he said. It was a word he didn’t use often—a term he wanted to save for after their marriage. “I know I have been a little preoccupied, I know this business has placed demands on me. But I love you no less.”
There, again, that was true.
“I have no doubts,” she answered.
“And soon,” he said. “Soon, all will be settled, things will return to the way it has always been, the way you want it to be.”
“And you are sure about this, Colin Lawless?”
“Yes, Alinda Leslie, I am sure about this.” Then he pulled her to him, and kissed her. Yes, he really meant it. He was really sure.
When the 2nd of January finally arrived, and with it the Greyfield announcement; when the colossal success of their plans—the brilliant culmination of months of hectic buying and selling—stood apparent, Colin knew that things would never return to the way they had always been, to the way Alinda wanted them. To the way that he, in his heart of hearts, also wanted them.
Much to Trevor’s surprise, Dr. Charles Wesley was so thin that he struck him as a collection of twigs. Was there any meat at all on that frame, he wondered, as he shook the bony hand on the front steps of The Meadows.
Yes, he concluded, there was meat on that frame, at least in the hands, for his grip was surprisingly firm.
“Mr. Brown,” he said with the incongruously deep voice he recognized from the phone conversation with the doctor two days before. “I am glad you could come.”
“Dr. Wesley. Pleasure.”
“Drive down okay?”
“Oh, yes, just fine.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Well, Friday afternoon. You know how it goes. Mass exodus.”
“I should have said to come tomorrow, but there is a lot to read, and Sundays are very busy.”
“No, that’s not a problem,” said Trevor, and meant it.
“This, by the way,” said the doctor, as his hand made a sweep to include the building behind him as well as the grounds, which struck Trevor as something a tour-guide would do, “is now historical property. The first institute in England built specifically for the mentally ill.”
“So I gathered,” said Trevor. Which earned him a questioning look. “The plaque,” he explained, and pointed in its direction.
“Ah, yes. Of course.”
Formalities apparently over, Dr. Wesley held the door open for him to enter. Once inside Trevor could not help but cast his glance around the impressive entrance hall to see if that sternly pretty nurse could be seen.
They proceeded over well-worn marble to a large sweep of stairs that led first up to a landing, then to the second floor. Economy of space had not been uppermost in this architect’s mind. It was more like a palace inside. Again, he started to put figures to what he saw, and again it took a determined effort to knock it off. Nice building though. No, really.
Now, Wesley’s office was what went with the voice, Trevor thought. It was the office of a substantial man, physically. Dr. Wesley looked oddly out of place among the glass-doored book cases, the vast, polished desk, the enormous (that was the right word) leather chair—all off which reeked of rich after-dinner brandies and cigars, of ruddy, stout men, groaning from overeating. And in the middle of it, standing now by his desk, someone who could not possibly have seen food for months. He almost shook his head, almost smiled, but, with effort, managed to not do either.
“Here are the files I mentioned,” said the doctor, and pointed to a brown ledger by the edge of his desk closest to Trevor. Foolscap-sized, at least an inch thick, perhaps two. Thick enough to be a Bible. Substantial.
“Colin Lawless?” said Trevor.
“Yes. And when I say files, I’m taking some liberties with the word. They didn’t keep files, per se, at the time. This is more like a case journal, kept by the doctor who treated him, and from what I can gather, he kept it more from personal interest than medical necessity, or protocol.”
Trevor picked it up. Fine leather, well preserved. Someone knew about oils. Weighed a bunch. Bible sprung to mind again. And damn if he wasn’t putting a figure to the thing, it was beautiful. He opened it, leafed through it. The paper was so thick it felt stiff against his thumb. Even so, there must have been hundreds of them, and most covered by a fairly large but precise, even graceful hand; the letters thin as if they were all written with the very tip of a quill.
“There’s a lot here.” A superfluous observation.
“There was a lot to him. And the doctor—his name was Ash, by the way, Trevor Ash as it happens—the doctor took a personal interest in the boy, well, man, really.”
When Trevor didn’t answer, Dr. Wesley, still standing to by his desk, hand resting on the back of his chair, said—and it was as if he had been meaning to ask this of him at first sight, “So, Mr. Brown, you’ve actually seen the tree?”
The O was so much harder. So very, very much harder.
His bandaged index finger had finally stopped bleeding, but the pain of it had turned unfriendly again, and worse, and there was now some pus seeping through the cloth, which he knew meant an infection. Also, the clumsy makeshift bandage got in the way of his middle finger, and kept tearing while, with it, he drew the O, over and over on the rough bark, on the patient tree, to no apparent effect at all.
And what was worse, there was no respite. No lifting the middle finger away from the bark, as with the L, for even that fraction of blessed no contact. No, with the O it was round and round, slowly, round and round and round, and soon the skin came off the tip of his middle finger, and its nail came loose, and with a fresh pain, cross at being woken, and very vocal about it, came a fresh bleeding.
Round and round.
“Yes,” said Trevor, in answer to Dr. Wesley’s question. “Yes, I have seen it.”
“So, it does exist.” It was not a question, more like something he said to himself, like a long sought confirmation. He finally sat down behind his desk, while Trevor remained standing, the leather-bound journal in hand.
“Oh yes,” said Trevor. “Very much so. An Oak. Quite large. And very old.”
“Yes, it would have to be.” Again, more to himself. Then, “And the carving, what does it say?”
“Love thyself last.”
“Love thyself last?”
“All fifteen letters?” The question struck Trevor as burning.
“Love thyself last,” the doctor said again. Slowly, and again as if to himself.
Trevor said nothing. Instead he looked around the office, again struck with the ruddy and well-fed comfort of it, feeling what it needed was a billiards table, that would make it complete, and found himself actually looking for it. After a while he said, “You really have a nice office here.”
“I actually went looking for it a few times,” said Dr. Wesley.
“Yes.” He seemed a little embarrassed by the admission. And then, suddenly, as if he had just noticed, “Please,” he said. “Please. Where are my manners? Sit down, please.” He indicated what looked like a very comfortable leather armchair a little to Trevor’s right. 1890s. Nine hundred quid, at a guess.
Trevor did. More like sank down into it. Arranged himself in it.
Then asked, “Where did you look?”
“Oh, outside Glen Row, where they found him.”
“But no luck, I gather.”
“No. A few carvings here and there, but, you know, of the ‘Sally loves John’ variety.”
“I saw a few of those, too.”
“Tell me again,” he said.
“How you came upon the carving.”
“It was sheer luck, I think. You know how you can catch something in the corner of your eye, not sure what you caught, and when you look it’s gone. Like something that only hints, never shows. But when I looked away I caught it again, from the depth of the bark. Whispering, that’s what it felt like, whispering. I know it sounds strange, but that was the feeling I got—that it was trying to get my attention. I finally managed to hold on to the spot and take a closer look. Still, I had trouble making it out, at first. I’m not surprised you didn’t find it.”
“Amazing,” said the doctor. And then again, as if he didn’t quite believe it, “Love thyself last?”
He leaned back into his chair—which threatened to consume him. “Amazing.” Then, “Something to drink, Mr. Brown?”
“Trevor. I’m Charles.” And here the good doctor scrambled to his feet and extended his hand over the oaky acreage of desk between them. Trevor had to follow suit, and they shook on it: first-name chums, then.
“Coffee would be great,” said Trevor, sitting down again.
The doctor rang for it, and damn, if it wasn’t the blond nurse from his first visit who brought it. On a tray—which he’d wager was sterling silver—with two cups and saucers, and a matching pot. Bone china, surely. Sugar and cream in their own little silver servers. He was looking at money here.
She glanced at him as she placed the tray on the doctor’s desk, but if she recognized him, she didn’t let on, not in the least. A paragon of formality, that one.
“Thank you, nurse,” he said.
She did not reply, nor did she smile, but she did incline her head in the doctor’s direction, before she turned and without looking at Trevor again, left.
The doctor poured them each a cupful from the pot. “You mentioned a Mr. Yeats,” he said.
“Yes. Yes, that’s why I came here in the first place. He knew about the boy, and about coming here.”
“What else did he know?”
“He told me the tale of the boy, as he had heard it from, I think it was, his mother-in-law, or grandmother. One of the two.”
“Would you mind sharing it?”
“No, not at all,” and between sips of a very delicious coffee, Trevor relayed the story as he had heard it from Mr. Yeats. The doctor said not a word while he was talking, nor did he touch his own cup, not once. Trevor had all of his attention.
His fresh pain, louder and more violent, as if it knew—by the fate of its index sibling—what was to come, threatened blackness many times, and many times Colin nearly succumbed to it. Nearly. Yet, he would not allow himself to. He did not deserve blackness. Nor rest. Nor death.
By now the pain had screamed a dark circle in the bark, but it was still far from the sapwood. He told himself: just one more time around, and then just one more, and then again.
And then again.
Then, it was toward evening, the ground again rose to swallow him, and as he could no longer fight it off, and fainted, falling, falling, he heard—high above him, somewhere—the tree laughing and calling him a fool.
And falling, falling, the storm in his forefinger—also somewhere high above him, on the earthy surface—had found a sister storm and together they tore his hands to pieces.
“It is a very sad story,” said the doctor once Trevor had finished. “Sadder still for being true.”
“I had a feeling it might be, once you wanted to see me.”
Dr. Wesley was shaking his head. “Remarkable,” he said. And again, “Remarkable.”
“And the journal?” Trevor began. “It corroborators?”
“Yes,” the doctor answered. “Yes it does.”
“And I can?” began Trevor.
“Oh, yes. Absolutely. Of course you can read it. After all, that’s why you came. Although, as I might have mentioned, I don’t want the journal to leave the hospital.”
“Of course,” said Trevor. “That’s why I brought a toothbrush.”
“Ah, yes,” said the doctor. “Tell you what,” as he rose. “We have a nice library downstairs. I’ll see that you’re not disturbed.”
With that Trevor rose too, journal in hand.
Dr. Wesley opened the door for Trevor, then darted past him to lead the way down the wide stairs and into a large room, surprisingly light for being a library. It struck Trevor more like a conservatory with lots of books. The doctor told him to sit anywhere he chose, then took his leave, wishing Trevor good reading before closing the door behind him.
And for a good part of the weekend, Trevor was not disturbed.
8 May 1843
The constable and his men—they were two odd-looking fellows I would not have thought did such a job for a living—brought us a boy shortly after three o’clock this afternoon. A lunatic, said the constable, for who else would damage his hands to such a horrible extent. I took a look at him and saw at once that I could do nothing for him in his current state. Not until his hands, or indeed what was now left of them (they were virtually fingerless), were tended to. The boy was muttering softly and incoherently, as if he had yet to learn words—so no wonder the constable thought him deranged—and now and then moaned from, I assume, the pain which must have been on the far side of unbearable.
So, instead of admitting the boy, I asked the constable to bring him to the hospital at Pembury, where I know a competent surgeon. Although this was out of his way, in fact, out of his jurisdiction—he made a point of informing me—he agreed. I then ordered nurse Stanford to administer him a sedative, which she did, while I wrote a note to Dr. Talbot, for the constable to take along with the boy.
14 May 1843
I receive letters daily from Dr. Talbot about the boy’s progress. He has, for some reason he cannot even guess at, apparently chafed—that was the word Talbot used—between one inch and two, depending on which finger, off each of them, and it is a miracle, he says, that the boy has not already died from either blood loss, infection or gangrene. This he attributes to the boy’s, or young man’s, excellent physical constitution. A weaker man would have been found dead.
As I took note of Dr. Talbot’s surprise at the boy not already being dead, and especially his use of the word “already,” I suspect that the boy, for his excellent physical constitution, still might not be long for this world.
Dr. Talbot is administering laudanum for the pain several times a day, without which the boy moans incessantly. They have to keep him strapped to his bed, to prevent him from further damaging his hands, by accident or intentionally he does not say.
The boy has not spoken yet, and what sounds he does make, from Dr. Talbot’s description, seem to be the same senseless mutterings I have heard with my own ears.
16 May 1843
Dr. Talbot writes to tell me that, much to his surprise, the boy’s hands are healing, and well at that, and further tells me that within a week or so, he will be able to remit him to us for treatment.
24 May 1843
The boy—a young man really, Talbot is correct—was returned to us today. His hands were expertly wrapped in gauze and linen. He appeared to be in a slight fever. His skin—of rather a dark aspect, much like gypsies I have seen, and stretched rather taut over his face, as if he had not eaten for many days—seemed to have a glow, at least a sheen, and it was warm to the touch. I think there may be some sort of infection lingering, though Dr. Talbot makes no mention of this.
Dr. Talbot suggests that we continue to give him laudanum no more than twice a day for the pain, morning and night, though not for too long, lest he become dependent.
I assigned him to the third-floor general ward.
The boy seems unaware of his whereabouts. He did not look about to survey his new surroundings—which one is wont to do—when he arrived, but rather looked down at his hands, or feet, and now and then muttered the same incomprehensible sounds I had heard on his first arrival.
25 May 1843
The boy—I cannot decide whether he is boy or man—still starts to moan, and rather loudly, whenever the laudanum wears off. We administer the opium to him twice a day as Dr. Talbot suggested, morning and evening. Once it stills the pain he grows quiet.
He has yet to speak, that is, has yet to utter anything coherent or sensible. At times, almost word-like sounds emerge, but they have no meaning, and are said in no particular direction, unless, perhaps, he is addressing his hands in their language.
28 May 1843
We tried to lessen the laudanum today, but it is too soon. The pain takes him over and it is too severe still. I am however concerned that we are creating a dependency. I will keep a close eye on this.
30 May 1843
He was crying yesterday evening, and tossing about. This was the first time he has actually cried—and not simply moaned—that I know of.
Dr. Talbot made no mention of him crying, only moaning—I must remember to ask him about that, it may be significant. We had to secure him to the bed, or he would have removed his bandages. This calmed him down and he resumed his moaning until the laudanum again took effect.
31 May 1843
He succeeded in removing his bandages today, and as the nurses called on me, I saw, for the first time in any detail—as I normally leave the dressing of his hands and such to the nurses—the extent of the damage he has done to his hands.
I must admit that, despite my medical training, I was shocked at the sight of his mutilated fingers. Not so much at the sight, perhaps, but at knowing how this had occurred. An accident, such as happens now and then in an industrial plant where a man may lose his fingers in a machine, or even an arm, is one thing, it’s quick and done with. But these fingers, each one worn past the first joint, some even past the second—chafed away, as Dr. Talbot put it—over the period of what, weeks? by a sheer, if utterly distraught will, struck me as incomprehensible. That any human being would, or even could, do such a thing to himself.
The boy reminded me of how a rabbit or fox, caught in a trap, will chew off his own leg to free himself. What on earth would such a good-looking and otherwise healthy boy need to free himself from? I cannot help but wonder.
I helped the nurses sedate him and secure him to the bed. Some of his remnants—for want of a better word—had begun to bleed and the nurses saw to that.
And still he has not spoken. I do not hold much hope for this boy.
2 June 1843
The constable found the boy’s father today, or perhaps it is the other way round. The father has been looking for his missing son, I gather. Now he’s found him and he came to see the boy today.
A heavyset man. I am told by the staff that he is a well-to-do lawyer from either Greyfield or Bearcliff—there seemed to be some confusion about this. Well, that should settle the question of the bills, if nothing else. The boy did not recognize his father, not from what I could tell.
But we know now that his name is Colin. Colin Lawless.
4 June 1843
The father returned today. He settled the bill with us, and gave us money in advance to cover the next several months. It is his wish that we keep the boy here for as long as it takes to heal him. I told him I was not sure that he would ever heal, for what made him do, made him endure, what he did, could not help but stem from anguish so deep that I fear we might not be able to reach and correct it. No matter, said the man—whom I don’t much care for, to be honest—see what can be done. Money, obviously—I hear he owns much of Greyfield, which consensus now agrees is where he lives—no object.
At the sound, Trevor looked up from the journal and turned his head to see who had just entered the library.
“Courtesy of Dr. Wesley.” It was her again, carrying a tray with tea and some sandwiches, which she placed on the table beside him.
“Brilliant,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
“So,” she said, and almost smiled. “You’ve got what you came for.” A statement.
He did smile. “Yes.”
“Well, good for you,” she said. And actually smiled, too. Great teeth. Out of some toothpaste commercial. Highlighted the freckles. Then she turned, and left.
He took a bite of the sandwich. Cheese and cucumber. Wondered briefly if she had made it herself, but realized in pretty much the same breath that they have kitchen staff in places like this, of course they do. Even so, she would probably make a very good cheese and cucumber sandwich.
He returned to the Journal.
8 June 1843
The nurses reported that they made out a word today. He said it, or moaned it, one of them told me, over and over: Linda. They sent word to me to come up to the ward to listen, but by the time I made it there—there were several other patients I had to see to first—the boy was asleep. By the evening he was only mumbling nonsense again.
9 June 1843
Colin said the word again today, and this time I heard it for myself: Linda, Linda. A girl’s name. Over and over. Nothing but the name. Almost like a prayer, a hymn.
He does not respond to questions, nor does he look up when addressed. Judging by his eyes, which are either fixed upon his bandaged hands or seem to roam around the room and settle on no one particular place, I doubt he’s even aware of us.
We have managed to cut down the laudanum to once a day, at night—to let him sleep—and I think that within a week or two we can withdraw it altogether. His hands continue to heal satisfactorily, although they are still horribly discolored and not a sight for the faint of heart. He still needs his bandages, which the nurses change three times a day, morning, lunch, and evening.
This—to my thinking—is the mystery about this boy: what could possibly have possessed him—and I use that term deliberately—to do this to himself, and how could he possibly, how could any human being possibly, withstand such pain?
In one of his letters Dr. Talbot mentioned that the constable had told him that the boy had used his fingers to rub a message into a tree. What the message was, was not clear. Nor where the tree was.
11 June 1843
Colin responded today. Linda? Who is Linda? I wanted to know. His eyes, for the first time, found mine and held them for a long breath. Alinda, he said then, quite clearly. Alinda.
Alinda? I repeated and he said, Yes.
Who is Alinda? I asked. But by that time his eyes had left mine and if he understood my question he didn’t let on.
13 June 1843
We kept his bandages off for a while today, to let his skin breathe a little better. The first thing he did, once he saw that his hands were uncovered, was to hold them up in front of his face to inspect them, turning them this way and that; this according to Nurse Stanford. Then he smiled at what he saw, she said. A strange smile, not a happy one. More like pride, she added. I did not see this myself. If true, however, and I have no reason to doubt her, this boy will be very hard to heal.
Very interesting, though; professionally speaking.
14 June 1843
He spoke again today. “What does it say?” he said. Several times. And also, “Is it finished?” At first I could not make out the second phrase, but when I thought I did and said it back to him, he said, Yes. What does it say? Is it finished? “Is what finished?” I wanted to know. What does what say? But this he didn’t, or couldn’t answer. He simply repeated the two questions, in no particular pattern. What does it say? Is it finished? Is it finished? Is it finished? What does it say? Is it finished?
15 June 1843
Nurse Stanford reported that he said “What does it say?” over and over for two hours today, from after lunch to mid-afternoon when he finally fell asleep, mumbling the question to the last. He seemed not coherent when he woke up before supper. I visited him in the evening, and he made no signs of recognizing me or even noticing me. He said nothing.
16 June 1843
Again, today, he repeated, almost sang, the question, over and over for most of the afternoon. Nurse Stanford called for me about three o’clock so I could see for myself. Staring up into the ceiling (not seeing it, I’d wager) he repeated the question ceaselessly. Colin did not hear my question in return, What does what say? His eyes never left the ceiling (or beyond—it was hard to determine where his focus landed), and he never changed the pitch or volume of his voice; over and over: What does it say?
17 June 1843
This afternoon, Colin paused his odd song to say, “The tree promised.” I asked him, naturally, “What tree? Promised what?” but to these questions I received no reply, only that new odd statement over again: “The tree promised.” Was he talking of the same tree, the one he had been chafing?
I could only assume so.
I must confess to curiosity, perhaps beyond the professional, for today I asked one of our nurses to fetch me the police report, if possible, from the police station. This, bless her heart, Nurse Coventry did for me this evening. We can keep if for the night, the constable told her, but she must bring it back by tomorrow evening.
Indeed, it was contained in the report. They are nothing but thorough, our men in black. They had included a rough map of where they found the boy, and where the tree stood which he had carved. And the message, strangely: LOVE THYSEL. Love Thysel, surely Love Thyself. I looked at the ten written capital letters, written in a clumsy but nonetheless clear hand, as if the author were a child, LOVE THYSEL, and the sickening notion rose in me that this was indeed correct, and that the boy had run out of fingers at this point. I resolved to visit the spot tomorrow, being Sunday and my day off.
18 June 1843
I found the place. I saw the dilapidated lean-to which had served as his shelter, and I found the tree, and the carving. And this is the odd thing, the very odd thing. The message, clearly carved, nay, chafed or rubbed—to use Dr. Talbot’s phrase—by his fingers into the bark, reads: “LOVE THYSELF LAST.” There is no doubt about that, it says “Love Thyself Last.” LOVE, then THYSELF just underneath, then LAST below that. Like this:
Very clearly. Especially those five letters the police report for some reason had left out, the letter F in “THYSELF” and the final word, LAST, clear as day. Under less horrid circumstances I would even have thought them beautiful. No, I thought grimly to myself, standing in front of that tree, Colin did not run out of fingers, nor did he run out of endurance, he finished the three words.
At that point I had a chilling realization, one that stood the fine hairs on my arms. I suddenly knew what the boy had meant by his questions. What does it say? Is it finished? He wanted to know if he had managed to finish the message (which I believe is from Shakespeare—I need to confirm that). Yes, he had finished it, and my heart went out to him, such incredible, inhuman endurance.
On returning I wrote a note to the constable commending him on the accuracy of the map and the general description of the scene, but pointed out that the message did not read Love Thysel, but Love Thyself Last. It was a comment meant purely constructively; if his men went to the trouble to copy down the inscription, they might as well be accurate.
After that I looked in on the patient, but he was already asleep. I retired to my quarters. Tonight I will sleep well, the air and exercise has done me good.
19 June 1843
This afternoon I got a curt note back from the constable, begging my pardon, but the message on the three did not read Love Thyself Last, it read Love Thysel. He was quite certain of this because the two odd words had been the subject of some discussion at the time, what could he have meant, and so on. If the doctor implied that his men did not know how to read or observe something written properly, well then the good doctor was mistaken, for indeed they could both observe and read properly. I replied, politely, that I had meant no offense, but that I had just returned from the site yesterday with the message clearly reading “Love Thyself Last.” Perhaps the constable would not mind inspecting the carving again.
I looked in on Colin twice today. At neither time was he awake.
20 June 1843
The boy was not coherent today.
21 June 1843
This afternoon the constable arrived in person, hat in hand, very humble, very apologetic, almost obsequious. Begging my pardon, but, yes, as it happened, I was right. He had just come from the site, and yes, there was no mistake, I was indeed correct, sir, it read Love Thyself Last. He had studied the carving for many minutes to make sure, turned away from it and looked back again. He had no explanation, he said. When they found the boy, the inscription had read “LOVE THYSEL,” his men could testify to that; would swear to that in a court of law, he added.
He had no explanation, he said again.
I said not to worry, things like this happen. Not to his men, he mumbled, and I was not making a friend of him. Even so, he smiled and apologized again as he took his leave.
This evening Colin was saying Alinda, Alinda, over and over. I could not make him look at me.
22 June 1843
This I must get down precisely:
I looked in on Colin after lunch, it was five minutes past two o’clock. Nurse Stanford had seen to his hands—which are almost healed now, though horribly deformed—and the boy was calling for Alinda, Alinda to the ceiling, though not very loudly. Just a singing whisper, a prayer. Alinda, I said. Who is Alinda? At this his eyes left the ceiling and found mine.
“What does it say?” he asked me. “What does it say?”
It says “Love Thyself Last,” I told him. It says, “Love Thyself Last.”
“Love Thyself Last,” he repeated in a soft, reverent voice. Almost like a whisper.
“Yes,” I said.
The odd, the almost inexplicable thing I must try to depict, is the change on his face. For at that point, before my eyes, it changed from a pale, almost shadowy complexion to a ruddy joy, as if blood, long banned, had finally been admitted back into his features.
He looked at me as if he had had a revelation, and broke out in the widest smile I can recall ever seeing. Bliss is the only word that comes readily to mind. The boy turned from shadow into a perfect picture of bliss. And then he said, very clearly, “I am forgiven.”
At that point he began to cry, and as he cried, his hands sought mine, found them and tried to grasp, something he could not manage, still he did not let go the contact, the physical contact with mine.
I may be wrong, but I would venture that I have never seen a happier, or at least a more relieved, human being in my life.
I wanted to ask him questions, but thought better of it. Colin Lawless was undergoing something truly dramatic, and I have learned not to interfere under these circumstances. I sat silently and watched him cry.
After perhaps half an hour he fell asleep, a smile still on his face, his cheeks shiny with tears. I don’t know what to make of this.
Trevor looked up from the journal, pictured the tree, and thought of the last five letters.
Someone was at the door.
Within two days of the RPC announcement, Clarke and Evans—ruined both by their costly, and now near worthless, Bearcliff investments—had brought suit against Myron Lawless. Neither suit had merit.
Legally, Myron Lawless had done nothing out of bounds. He had simply sold his Bearcliff holdings at an amazing profit and bought up most of Greyfield with the proceeds. Mostly through agents and representatives, but all above board, all legally sound and properly recorded.
The suits were both ruled frivolous by a bored Greyfield Magistrate, and thrown out, along with stern reprimands to the plaintiffs.
One week after the announcement, and with his final exams only a few months away, Colin excused himself for the rest of the school year to help his father weather the storm of offers and proposals that owning most of the relevant Greyfield real estate brought on. School would have to wait. He could repeat his final year, probably would, would take his exams next spring. For now—it had become very apparent—Myron needed his hand.
And a dizzying prospect it was, to say the least. It was hard to keep up. But keep up he did. Didn’t sleep much, that is true, didn’t eat all that regularly either, but carried by youth and giddy on large sums of money along with volumes of attention and respect, he seemed to manage just fine. In fact, it was Myron, in the end, who tried to put the brakes on a little.
One afternoon in late February, they took lunch together at the Woodrow Hotel, which his father now owned. Myron was dismembering an almost overdone duck, and with relish. Colin made do with coffee and a sandwich.
“Look, Son,” said his dad. “You had better take a real meal. You’re getting thinner by the day, if you ask me.” Myron Lawless, Esq., no qualms or hesitations about savoring the spoils of success, was not.
“Not to worry dad. I’m doing fine.”
“Look at you though, I can see the bones in your face. You’re not eating right. Are you sleeping at all?”
“I’ve been thinking,” said Colin, “about the parcels south and south east of the station. I don’t think we should sell.”
“I think we should lease. Long term, say thirty, forty years.”
Myron Lawless finished chewing, swallowed, wiped his lips and chin with his napkin. “Why?”
“True, we can get a fair amount for those tracts now.”
“Fair’s the word. We will get ten-fold what we paid.”
“And that is for undeveloped land,” said Colin. “Imagine what we could get, once it is developed, as we know it will be.”
“Thirty of forty years from now, I won’t be around to get much of anything.”
“Oh, you will. But if not, I will, my children will, and their children. Call it a long-term investment. Insurance.”
His father finished another bite. “Who will want to build on leased land?”
“Many farms are worked on land leased from the church. Or from the Queen.”
“These are not farms, Colin. These would be shops, hotels, pubs.”
“I’m aware of that. But, if we don’t sell, but insist on leasing, what choice do they have?”
“And,” Colin finished his coffee, and replaced the cup on its saucer, carefully. “And at the end of the lease we’ll give the lessee the right of first refusal.”
His dad didn’t answer, but was listening intently.
“Of course,” Colin continued, “if at the end of the lease they don’t want to buy, or cannot buy, they’ll forfeit the buildings.”
His dad thought that over while fishing around for another scrap of oily duck. He found one and relished it. “No one will sign such a deal,” he said finally.
“Let me try.”
“Fine with me, you can try, but no one will sign that.”
“By the way, Colin. I ran into Fergus Leslie yesterday. He was asking about you. Well, I gather Alinda was asking about you.”
That stung, and not a little. This was the only thorn in this whirlwind of great sailing. “I know.” He shook his head, and regarded the empty cup in front of him. “I just don’t seem to find the time.”
“We’re over the worst, Colin. You can slow down a little, I’m sure. Take a few days.”
“No, Dad, I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. There are the water contracts. There is the farming property by the mill, which is a bit of a tricky situation since we need to evict the two families currently working that land. And there’s another suit brought. Johnson, this time.”
“Meritless, of course. And now, there are the leases to work out and get signed. At least two of them. And if they are accepted, perhaps four more.”
“Even so, take some time and enjoy yourself. You’ve deserved it.”
“But, Dad, that’s just it, I am enjoying myself. More than I have ever done in my life.”
That earned him a long glance from his father. “Be sure, Colin, that you remain the master of this situation. Don’t let it go to your head.”
“I’m not suggesting.”
“Well, it sounded like you were.”
“Be that as it may,” said his father. “All I am saying, Colin, is I know we are doing very well now, things are going our way.”
“That would be an understatement.”
“I know you are carrying much of the load, and I can see for myself that you enjoy it. But please don’t let it blind you to what is really important.”
When Colin didn’t answer, Myron said, “If I had a choice, Son, I’d have your mother back for any of this.”
“You would?” Colin was genuinely surprised.
“In a second.”
“Well, I’m not so sure,” began Colin, but he did not continue, for he wasn’t sure exactly what he wasn’t so sure of. He had touched a thought he had felt stir once or twice before, but never dared to wake and finish.
“Not so sure of what?” asked his father.
“Don’t know, actually,” said Colin, and poured himself some more coffee from the silver pitcher.
A week later to the day, and much to Myron’s surprise and delight, Colin had drawn up, and had had executed, notarized and recorded, two leases for the land adjacent to the station.
Both leases were for fifty years—not even Colin’s legal acumen and powers of persuasion could get them to sign for thirty or forty. But in fifty years, both developers reckoned, they would have earned all their money back several times over, and who knows what the political and economic climate would be in fifty years. After all, that was half a century out. Building was to commence as soon as practicable.
Myron was not only impressed by his son’s negotiating skills, but simply thrilled by the result. The lease payments would recoup the purchase price in less than two years. From there on every lease payment was profit, sheer and simple. Myron looked at his son, with new, albeit somewhat concerned, eyes. What did he have on his hands? Someone very clever, that was for certain. Also someone very driven.
As a father he felt a little uneasy; he wasn’t sure exactly what to make of his son. Still, he was very proud of this marvel of a not-even-yet lawyer.
The Johnson’s suit was thrown out, on the same grounds as its two forerunners; as meritless, and by the same bored Magistrate.
Colin had managed to resettle the two farmers by the mill without too much commotion or ill will.
The station construction was underway and on schedule.
Between them, Myron and Colin negotiated and drew up four more fifty-year leases, now signed by all concerned.
Colin then suggested they buy additional land farther out. The town would grow, he pointed out, would spill over into what was now grazing and small woods. And they had to do something with their money. Not doing any good in the bank. Sure, agreed Myron, why not, and over the next two weeks Colin—living mainly on coffee and sandwiches and not sleeping much, as far as Myron could tell—bought close to four thousand acres of mostly farmland surrounding Greyfield. Yes, of course, the farmers could continue to work the land, at least for the foreseeable future.
Myron mentioned sleep and food once or twice again, but then stopped bringing it up, water off a duck, why spill it? Besides, he could see how much his son enjoyed what he was doing. And he was young, let him run. He’ll slow down soon enough.
Meanwhile, all his running was adding to their fortunes at nearly every turn.
And now to do something for his son as thanks. Colin’s birthday, just around the corner, would be the perfect opportunity.
Myron Lawless settled on a four-room cottage by the river. It was as beautiful a house as he had ever seen. It had a large, well-tended garden and came with four acres of fields to the east, and a short walk to the water to the south. The thought crossed his mind, more than once, to get it for himself, but, no, he’d settle for the hotel suite for now, and later he’d get a house closer to the station.
Not too large, but large enough for Colin and Alinda, and a couple of children. There was a maid’s room by the kitchen. All things told, it was the perfect house; and it was available.
Myron bought it with cash, and had a sizeable crew work nearly round the clock, and in secret, to make sure everything was fixed, polished, and painted, and in time for Colin’s birthday.
They had a week to get it ready.
The party, he decided, would begin at the hotel. Then, after dinner and dance, they’d head down to the cottage for cake and well, more celebration.
He also made very sure that the thirty or so invitations that went out included one to Mr. and Mrs. Leslie and daughter.
For April 2nd, at the Woodrow Hotel.
Colin would be twenty-three.
The workers finished at the cottage, with a day to spare.
Colin, who normally had no problem keeping up with his father’s doings, was taken completely by surprise.
Yes, it was true that he had asked his father—pleaded with him in fact—not to put on a spectacle for his birthday; still, truth be told, he was a little disappointed when Myron asked him to meet him for dinner at the Woodrow at eight. Not even eight sharp, just eight. Which to his mind meant just that: dinner with Dad. Well, he had asked for this.
On entering the dining hall that evening any lingering disappointment dissipated, and in a hurry. As he set foot in the large room it literally erupted in a well-rehearsed “He’s a jolly good fellow,” and for a few breaths he had trouble with his bearings.
Then he got a hold on himself again and managed to assess his surroundings. There, by the obvious table of honor, stood his father, Mr. and Mrs. Leslie, and, of course, Alinda. Around the other tables stood many of their agents and representatives, along with their wives, and, in one case, parents. Banner and festoons hung from the ceiling, a small band had assembled on the little stage by the dancing floor, now taking a break after the Jolly Good Fellow. He had to laugh. At what he wasn’t quite sure, for he suddenly wished that this had in fact been a quiet dinner; there was something he wanted to talk over with Myron, a chance to acquire the mill, and along with it about forty acres of land, the last enclave south of town. Hutchinson, the miller, was asking a small fortune, but a lot for him was not necessarily a lot for Myron and son.
Still, he kept his smile in place and let the business go. This was all arranged for him, and he had, if nothing else the filial duty to enjoy it.
And as it happened, he did enjoy himself. A little more with each toast. And so he ate and toasted some more, and danced. Mostly with Alinda of course, but also with her mother, and some other women, wives of people.
And then again, with Alinda.
At eleven o’clock Myron, very merry now with champagne and other drink, stood up to announce, “Ladies and Gentlemen, and Son.” Laughter and Hear, Hears. “Now for the cake.”
Colin, along with the others, looked toward the large double doors, expecting someone to wheel in a large cake any second. None came, and then none came, and Myron, enjoying himself immensely by this time, finally said, “First, though. Please get your coats. We’re going for a little stroll.” Murmurs. Smiles. Questions. Coats.
Luckily the weather came down on the side of cooperation. It had been a dry, fairly warm spring, and today, the 2nd of April, had been almost hot. The evening was cooler, but not cold, and with coats on, and drinks in hand, the congregation set out down high street towards the south of town.
To be honest, the jaunt was a little longer at night with thirty-odd people on foot than in the daytime by coach, but with waiters running about with bottles of champagne filling empty glasses, even this un-bargained for distance was covered in less than half an hour and by eleven thirty they reached the cottage, beautifully ribboned.
Colin, Alinda on his arm, stopped and gaped. He was in fact shocked, and not pleasantly.
Alinda gasped, and gave a little yelp of delight, then squeezed his arm.
“Colin. Look,” she said.
And Colin looked, not at the cottage but at her, illuminated by the galaxy of lamps and torches lit around the little house; he saw her rapture, saw her delight, saw her future in that small house with him, with children, with washing, with day in and day out, with a life under a low thatched roof and a flowery garden, with a settled steady rhythm that had nothing to do with the pace his life had at the moment. He was looking at her looking at a life he had neither asked nor bargained for, yet was being served, right here, on his twenty-third birthday.
Still he had the sense to smile, and turn to Myron and say, “Oh, Dad.”
“It really is beautiful,” said Alinda.
“It is,” said Colin.
Myron, beaming, led them through the gate, then, from somewhere, produced a pair of very large scissors. “Son,” he said. “Here.” He handed him the scissors and stepped aside. Colin was supposed to cut the ribbon; like some dignitary opening a bridge; like some youth vanishing into adulthood; like some spirit into confinement.
Still he smiled, and cut. He saw the ribbon fall to the ground either side of the door.
“Happy birthday, Son,” said Myron and embraced him.
“Thanks, Dad. Thank you so much,” said Colin.
Alinda kissed him, first on the cheek, then on the mouth, “Happy birthday, darling,” she said. “Happy, happy, happy birthday.” And hugged him some more.
And still he smiled.
“Well, go on,” urged his dad. “Go inside.”
Under any other circumstances he would have appreciated the cottage. Yes, absolutely. It was well built and beautifully appointed and furnished. But the ceilings were low—especially stepping in from the starlit sky outside. The beams looked massive, like things you get strapped to, strong enough to thwart any escape. The floorboards—wide, scrubbed, and polished—confined the space to large, limiting rectangles. Only this much floor, and not more. Not like the fields and roads and sky outside, of his real life.
Alinda squeezed his arm again. “Oh, Colin.” Almost singing.
And Alinda, so pretty, so thin, so tall, so happy. Not like the more mature women he had danced with tonight, one of whom had whispered things and actually managed to nibble his ear playfully which made him almost buckle at the knees. So pretty and so sure of her future with him. So much part of this cottage. He dared not complete that thought.
Still he smiled.
And there was the cake.
The doorways were too narrow to let a trolley through, so it was carried; it took two strong men. Enormous, it must have been three feet by three. A mountain of cream, candles, marzipan garlands, the lot. Grand enough to let Colin, if only for a moment, let go of his sense of confinement and widen his frozen smile to a genuine grin.
But only for long enough to cut the cake and eat some.
Then came the speeches, mostly, it seemed, by his dad, but Fergus Leslie put in a word or two, about having known the lad since he was this high—showing with his flat hand two feet from the wide floor boards just how tall he meant—and what a lad. And as he grew up, Fergus continued after another sip of the bubblies, there were many a day when he would have to use all manners of threats, if not weapons, to keep him away from his daughter, ha, ha, though he hasn’t tried to keep him away lately, ha, ha. Guess he’s got used to the wee thing.
Others chimed in with their little speeches and their little choruses of “hear, hear,” and then there was another round of what a “jolly good fellow” he was, and then the party seemed to pretty much evaporate as guests discovered the time and slowly filed out the doors, leaving him with a host of very good wishes and a sense of being darkly cornered.
Alinda took his arm and whispered, “What’s the matter, Colin?”
He turned to look at her. “Nothing,” he said. Her face showed concern, waiting for more of an answer. “Nothing’s the matter,” he added with a bit of a smile.
“If I didn’t know any better,” she said. “I would say that you’re not all that pleased with the party, or with the present.”
“I could not be happier,” he said. But the words lodged in his throat and only made it out one by one, broken. Something Alinda, champagne or no, could not miss. She knew him far too well.
“What is the matter?” she asked again.
“Something’s the matter?” said a very jolly Myron Lawless, glass in hand, just coming close enough to overhear her question.
“Nothing’s the matter, Dad. Nothing at all. It was a wonderful party. Absolutely wonderful.”
“Well, putting it that way,” said Myron, and raised his glass in salute, “I would have to agree, wouldn’t I?”
“Yes,” said Alinda. “It was absolutely wonderful.” But she wouldn’t take her eyes off Colin’s. Looking for something, the discord he felt, the discord she sensed.
“I,” said Myron, as if he too just realized what time it was, “will leave you two birds alone now.” Then went looking for his coat, found it, came back to the front room. “Happy birthday, Son,” he said. Then embraced him, slapped his back, pulled back, grinned, and kissed him on the cheek. At this, Colin felt nothing but pride and gratitude. Then his dad embraced him again, wished him a very happy birthday, and—whispered loud enough for Alinda to hear—a very happy life. Then he left.
Only Colin and Alinda remained in the cottage.
“But it’s not a happy one,” said Alinda.
Colin sat down in a grand old leather armchair, which creaked a little under his weight. Alinda remained standing.
“What’s not happy?”
“Your birthday. You.”
He had taken a dislike to alcohol as of late, and as a rule no longer drank it. He had found that it took the edge off of your wits when you needed them the most—something he had learned through several recent negotiations, and something that had contributed to his success—and now that he did need it, the edge was nowhere to be found. He could not corner this feeling of his, it wasn’t clear enough to corral so refused to sit still and be inspected. Instead, it remained a dull, undeniable pressure of not being; of not being what, he wasn’t sure exactly. Free perhaps, able to move in his own directions.
“I don’t know, Alinda. I don’t know.”
And that was all the confirmation she needed. And never one to mince words, she asked, still standing, and looking right at him, “Do you still want to get married?”
Well, that was just plain unfair. And by not answering right away and without hesitation he had already answered her. He knew that anything he now said would be false, and she would sense it.
So he said the only thing he could say, “I don’t know, Alinda. I don’t know.”
The nurse, the one he surprised himself by thinking of as “his,” knocked again, then entered to ask if he was staying for dinner. Yes, he said. He sure would. Fine, she said, turned, and left. He couldn’t tell whether his reply pleased her or not, or if she didn’t give one iota either way. Most likely the latter.
Then, putting her out of his mind with unexpected ease, he returned to the journal, and the mystery of the last five letters.
23 June 1843
The boy slept most of the day, today. I saw him briefly in the evening, but he did not seem to recognize me. He seems calmer though—and Nurse Stanford said as much, too—as if getting his questions answered resolved something within him, brought him some peace.
He lies there, she said, and stares at the ceiling, and seems to smile.
25 June 1843
His father visited again today.
It was not a pleasant event. It was not good for the boy, nor could it possibly have been good for the father. Perhaps it would be best if Mr. Lawless does not visit for a while, but then again, who am I to deny a father the right to see his son? Especially one who has paid for his son’s stay clear through October if I’m not mistaken.
I must say in his father’s defense, that this was the first time he had seen his son’s un-bandaged hands, and the shock may account for what followed.
According to Nurse Coventry, who escorted Mr. Lawless, the boy did not recognize him, hardly looked at him at all. As before, his father talked to him of this and that, about leases, about the new railway station, complete now, said Mr. Lawless, and about the railway arriving shortly. About houses they—he apparently kept referring to his dealings as “their” dealings—had sold, about profits they had made, now and then interspersed by the question, “Why, Colin?” which like everything else his father said, received no reply from the boy.
At this point Nurse Stanford arrived—and she corroborates Nurse Coventry’s observation—to let his hands breathe again, and she removed the bandages.
At the sight of his son’s deformity Myron Lawless, according to both nurses, went pale, then went dark, then said so loudly that other nurses came into the ward to see what was the matter, “What have you done? What in God’s name have you done to yourself, Colin?” Then he seized his son’s arms by the elbows and held up the deformed hands for his son to see, close to his face. “What have you done, Colin? Look at what you’ve done to your hands.”
At this time, I arrived—Nurse Coventry had come to tell me that Mr. Lawless was disturbing the other patients and would I please come right away—and even before I entered the ward I could hear the man, practically shouting now, “Look, look, you fool, at what you’ve done to your hands.” Then I saw the boy do what he had done the first time he saw his hands, he smiled. Not the dark smile that Nurse Stanford once had described to me, but a pleased smile, satisfied with a job well done.
Mr. Lawless did not take that well. He stared for a long time at those damaged hands then at his son’s face then literally shouted, “This is what you meant to do? Is this what you actually meant to do to yourself?” At that Colin looked straight at his father, it was as if he had recognized him all along, and asked, “How is Alinda?”
This not only took his father by surprise, but delivered him a hard blow. For a moment it looked like he was going to topple over from the force of it—I even moved in his direction to catch him—then, instead, he sat down and began to cry—head in hands, he cried like a man not accustomed to the act. After a while he managed to calm himself, found a handkerchief in one of his pockets, and dried his eyes, blew his nose. Then said, almost to himself, “Don’t you know?” Colin did not respond. Then, definitely for Colin this time: “Don’t you remember?”
No reply from the boy.
Mr. Lawless asked again. “Son, don’t you remember?”
Still no answer from the boy, who was now staring up at the ceiling, and perhaps was no longer aware of the little congregation around his bed.
Mr. Lawless left shortly after that, very shaken, without saying good-bye.
Doesn’t he know what? I must remember to ask Mr. Lawless.
26 June 1843
Doctor Talbot came today to take a look at the boy’s hands.
He seemed pleased with the progress and told us we did not need to bandage them any longer. They need to breathe, he said, let them breathe. I believe he said it a third time, just for good measure. Making sure.
Colin again studied them as they were unwrapped, and he still seemed pleased about them. It is a little frightening to observe this emotion, this gladness over damage done. I do not understand it. It’s like nothing I have observed before.
27 June 1843
I have had him moved to the second floor. Nurse Stanford expressed mild surprise that I did not specify the fourth floor, but I told her there was still hope that we might cure him, hope that he would not have to stay with us forever. And she, ever diplomatic, very-welled me, and complied without further question.
I have also asked that he no longer stay in bed all day. They tell me his legs are a little shaky. Of course they are a little shaky, he has not used them for nearly seven weeks, so that is hardly surprising. The nurses are helping him around, but he tires easily, and has to sit and rest often. But it seems he likes to be on his feet.
When I looked in on him this evening—he is just down the hall from my office now—I asked him how he liked his new bed, but he did not reply. Walking about must have tired him, because he fell asleep early.
The circle touched sapwood. First like a faint gleam, a fine fissure of green soon covered with blood; then, with each journey along the circumference, telling briefly of the flesh of the tree, quickly stained, telling again, then stained. The pain in his middle finger was like a roar, a shriek that hurt his ears as much as his finger. His forefinger, black and throbbing, ached in sympathy and his remaining fingers suffered with anticipation. Still, with each circle the “O” grew further and further out of the tree.
He no longer used wood between his teeth. He had found that smiling hard worked just as well.
28 June 1843
To cure Colin Lawless, I must first find a way to reach him. So far he, the person—for there is a sentient person in there, I am sure, I have glimpsed him—so far he has only surfaced perhaps twice, and then, I would venture to say, not of his own volition.
The boy is obviously deranged, but not in any way I have ever observed before. For who would ever, who could ever, without any relief—they found a full bottle of laudanum in his lean-to, he had taken none of it—endure the pain he subjected himself to. Who could not only endure but persist in such prolonged self-mutilation. A mind capable of that, in my view, is not utterly deranged, but also displays the most astounding force of will I have ever encountered, or even ever heard of.
I don’t know where to start, however. He does not respond to his name, nor to common courtesies. Words like food, water, do not seem to register, although the sight of supper and tea does touch him. However, I still sense that locked tight—hermetically sealed, as it were—within his derangement there is a complete person, all himself, if only I could find the key to his self-imposed imprisonment.
This evening he walked the entire length of the ward unaided.
30 June 1843
His father returned for a visit today but did not stay long. He seemed pressed for time. It is clear to me that Myron Lawless has a harder time facing his son’s physically deranged hands, than his mental condition.
I accompanied Mr. Lawless to the ward, and stayed with him through the visit, and not once, that I could ascertain, did his eyes land upon his son’s hands.
Again Colin did not respond to his father’s words, nor did he show any signs of recognizing him. It seems Colin has settled behind his internal walls and intends not to come out again.
Before he left, his father asked me about the account, and I told him not to worry, it was settled for nearly four months in advance. Still, the man said, if we need more money, we are to let him know. He will spend whatever it takes to cure his son. I told him I would keep that in mind, and that I would indeed let him know.
Then he excused himself, and left.
I had meant to ask him about what it is Colin does not know, but at first it slipped my mind, and by the time I remembered, Mr. Lawless was rushing off; not, it seemed, in any mood to answer questions.
I should write him and ask.
2 July 1843
The boy can walk unaided now. In my view—and Dr. Talbot, who came here this morning to see how the boy was doing, concurs—this is a remarkable recovery. It shows a phenomenal strength, and confirms to me that the person, the one inside this strange derangement, is intact. He is fully there, strong as ever, though held thoroughly captive.
3 July 1843
I have set aside one half hour each day from one o’clock, immediately after lunch, to one-thirty, where I will focus on nothing but the boy. My immediate goal is to by any means establish contact with him. Any way I can.
Today I brought him outside and we walked together through the gardens. The weather was first rate, sunny and warm, summer in full swing. Colin walked by my side, to my right, never more than a step behind, and mostly level with me. He said nothing, and responded to nothing. He did not look at me, but looked mainly at the ground, and once or twice looked up at the cry of a bird, or for the bark of a dog—the neighboring farm has a stable of them. Once he stopped to look for the source of a sound I didn’t hear, and it seems to me he thought it came from a large elm—though all I heard was wind through its leaves, perhaps that is what he heard.
I believe he enjoyed the walk. He seemed calm, almost tranquil, on returning to the ward.
4 July 1843
We took the same walk today, with the same result. He followed me, always to my right, now and then looking up at a sound.
There is nothing wrong with his hearing. If anything, it’s unusually good.
5 July 1843
As long as the weather stays fine, I will continue these walks. I am quite sure that he enjoys them. Again, today, he followed me, to my right, now and then stopping to listen. Though he still does not respond to my questions or comments, I have the feeling that he hears them now, that they register, and that on some level he chooses not to answer.
6 July 1843
Now I’m sure that he enjoys the walks. Today, as I came to get him after lunch, I found him waiting for me, and Nurse Stanford told me he had seemed impatient for me to arrive. How could you tell, I wanted to know. He had begun pacing the length of his bed, to and fro, she said. And when he saw me, he stopped immediately and walked over to me. So, he is quite aware of my presence, and absence. Quite sentient. Intact.
The walk followed the same pattern as the previous ones. And the weather stays glorious. As fine a summer as I have ever seen.
Again I am struck by his hearing. He stops at sounds I cannot make out with any certainty, mostly movements of trees, I think.
7 July 1843
He was waiting for me again today, and again paced the length of his bed until I arrived, Nurse Coventry informed me. I was a little delayed, perhaps five minutes. Nurse reported an agitation, more in the way he paced than in any facial expression or other manners. He definitely knows when I am supposed to arrive, and apparently knew I was late.
To make up for my tardiness, I stayed with him an extra quarter of an hour. He seemed aware of that.
8 July 1843
Still, he does not speak, nor does he otherwise respond to address. I have just leafed through these pages and see that the last thing he said was, along with tears, “I am forgiven” and it is as if with those final words, and with those tears, he closed all doors and windows and sealed them shut.
During our walk today—the weather still on my side—I stopped and turned to him several times, and spoke his name. Only once did he look up, and then more at my voice than at the sound of his name.
I still believe that he hears and knows but chooses to ignore, but it is hard to say for sure. During today’s walk he displayed such utter absence that one could be forgiven for assuming that nothing reaches him.
How thick are those walls? I wonder, and how sealed are those doors and windows? How alive is he within?
9 July 1843
It was raining heavily today. Cats and dogs, as they say.
Colin was not pacing alongside his bed when I came to get him, but just sitting on its edge as if he knew that the weather would preclude our walk, as if he knew there was nothing to be impatient for today. That speaks to me of awareness, of perceiving but choosing to ignore.
Instead of our walk I brought him to my office and offered him my visitor’s chair—it is a monster of an armchair, built for giants I think, and Colin apparently agreed, he looked at it for quite some time, then looked up at me, a question on his face, as if he wanted to make sure that I intended for him to actually sit in that, that thing. I nodded, yes, and he understood; and sat down. And he sat in it rather peacefully for the rest of our thirty minutes together.
As usual, he did not respond to his name, nor to any other address, but his eyes were alive and keen as they traveled the ins and outs of my office, my book cases, my desk, the bay windows. At one point he studied his hands, closely, and I sensed that he would have smiled had I not been present—though perhaps I’m reading too much into his face these days.
10 July 1843
It rained again today. As there were no visitors after lunch, the parlor was empty so I brought him there, instead of to my office, and offered him a less ostentatious chair, which he sat down in without hesitation or glances in my direction.
He studied his hands for some time, taking advantage, I think, of the good light, which is so much better in the parlor than just about anywhere in this building—the three walls facing the gardens consist of little but window. He flexed what was left of his fingers over and over, and grimaced, I believe from pain. In the middle of this exercise he looked up at me looking at him and again I sensed a smile, somewhere not too far below the surface. It did not rise all the way to his face, however.
The door opened softly behind him. He looked up from the journal and turned his head. It was Dr. Wesley.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said. “But dinner has been called.”
“Oh, thank you.”
Closing the book, Trevor looked around the room and asked, “Did this use to be the parlor?” The room was the shape he had pictured from reading about it in the journal, although of the three windowed walls, only one remained so, the other two now sported floor to ceiling book shelves.
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” said the doctor. “Yes, they renovated this room in the late 20s. The former library kept growing with more and more research in our field and so on, and with nowhere to put the books, they axed the parlor. Well, it’s still a nice view, but I can imagine—and I have pictures, remind me to show you them—that the original parlor would have been a wonderful room.”
“Yes,” said Trevor, still glancing around and picturing it, “it would have been.”
“How is the reading coming?”
“It’s coming along well. It’s quite a tale.”
“It’s quite a boy,” said the doctor.
The circle was done. To the sapwood.
Still he traveled it once more. Then again. His middle finger was numb from shock, either that or he had lost his facility to feel. He hoped, perhaps, that as long as he traveled the circle he could keep the pain at bay. So he traveled the circle yet again.
The pain, however, begged to differ, and suddenly rose again, fresh with strength and outrage. He slowed, then stopped his round and round and round and held his hand, his furious fingers away from him, as if fearing they might work themselves loose and attack him. They would come for his eyes, and they meant to kill him, of course. Tit for tat, he was killing them. He wondered whether arms-length was distance safe enough.
Then he let his hand fall to his side, where it remained. He stepped back to look at his work: LO.
He looked down. Blood dripped onto his shoes and into small dark puddles on the ground and his terrorized fingers now hurt all the way up his arm, past his elbow, into his shoulder, in disbelief.
He battled down a wave of nausea and decided to use his thumb for the V.
But first he brought water to wash the O clean of all traces. And washed the L again, too. Some blood had splattered onto it, just a few drops, but they shone darkly.
“How far have you come,” asked the doctor between bites.
“Doctor Ash is taking him on walks.”
“Summer or fall?”
“Summer. It’s July, early July. It’s raining right now. Second day of rain after a spell of fine weather. Dr. Ash is seeing him in the parlor.”
“You have read this many times, I’m sure,” said Trevor.
Dr. Wesley nodded in reply, but said nothing.
“How could he,” said Trevor. “How could he possibly? I mean, how could anyone?” Trevor could not, simply could not, picture the pain, much less enduring it, on purpose.
“Finish the journal, then I’ll tell you what I think.”
“Fair enough,” said Trevor.
The food was excellent.
Still standing, Alinda looked down at Colin and said nothing for the longest time. Then she walked over to the sofa and sat down. She walked slowly and deliberately.
But instead of crying, instead of getting upset, which he had expected, she patted down her skirt, regarded her hands for a moment, then looked up and placed her deep-green eyes firmly on his, and asked in a soft but steady voice, “Please tell me, Colin Lawless, what is happening to you? What has seized you?”
He returned her gaze, but then let his drop upon the small table between them. “Nothing has seized me,” he told the table.
“Don’t be coy with me, Colin. You know what I mean.”
No, he actually wasn’t sure that he did. Gathered himself and raised his eyes again. “What do you mean?”
“This business, this railroad business. Your dad says you don’t eat right, nor do you sleep much. I can tell. You’re wasting a little, Colin. You are paler, thinner.”
Colin didn’t answer.
“I hardly see you anymore.”
“Dad needs my help. You know that. I told you.”
“Yes, you told me. But you didn’t tell me he needed so much help we might turn into strangers if it keeps up much longer.” She wasn’t really complaining, just stating fact.
“A lot to do,” he said.
“You could write.”
“A lot to write.” He regretted those words the moment they left his lips. Too flippant, for she was being very serious, sincere. But she didn’t seem to notice, or mind. Mind probably.
“Oh, I realize that. But I have found it to be true, and a few wise men have said so, too. We always make time for those things we love to do.”
“Look,” he said, and reached across the low table for her hand. Instead of offering it to him, however, she withdrew it.
“No, Colin,” she said. “No.” Though it was not clear what she was denying him.
“Ah, come on, Alinda. It’s my birthday. I’m the birthday boy.”
“It was your birthday,” she said. “The new day is here. And you were a boy, Colin. What I see before me now is a man. And what I want, right now, is to hear from that man what it is he wants.”
Colin said nothing.
“Well if you don’t know,” she said. “Let me make it clear what it is I want.”
Colin drew breath, as if to say something, then realized he had nothing to say. Alinda waited for a breath or two to see if words were to follow. When none came:
“And as for what I want,” she said, “I will tell you Colin Lawless. I will not play second wife to business, ever. I’d opt for death before that. I will not play second wife to anything or anyone.”
“Why are you getting all serious?” he tried again.
But her mood would not melt. “I saw the cloud that fell on you when you saw this house, this really wonderful house—your dad has done a really nice thing.” She looked around, as if to underscore her words. “I saw the cloud turn darker as you entered, as if you were being led into a prison, and as if I were your guard. I will have none of that, Colin. I am not a guard, this house is not a prison, and you are not a convict. No one is trying to confine you.”
She spoke evenly, still looking directly at him, so directly that he had to look away now and then to let his eyes breathe.
He looked back at her. She was tall, even sitting down, and as beautiful as ever. And he saw her again as she really was—that June morning, that meadow, that sun and those skylarks, his question, and her answer, her whispered, “Yes.” And she was still the most beautiful girl in the world, and loving. And perceptive. Like a second conscience, more awake than his own, though not as biased. He realized—and it struck him like a blow that woke him up, from what he was not sure—he realized that he could not live without this girl, this woman.
“Alinda,” he said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know. I truly don’t know, what it is that seizes me sometimes. I get carried away with all the things to do, with all the money we’re making, with all the money we stand to make. I reel sometimes to think of it. It is almost intoxicating.” He stopped and then corrected himself, “It is intoxicating.”
“I can see that Colin. And, you will have to make a choice.”
“There’s no choice to be made, Alinda. I have already made my choice. I made it in our meadow that spring. I have not changed my mind. Really, I have not.”
And she could see that he was sincere, and she believed him.
For he was not lying.
What really was no secret anymore, what had in fact been no secret to anyone for some time now, was officially announced two days later: Alinda May Leslie was to become Mrs. Alinda Lawless. The date of the wedding to be made known in due course.
Alinda was happy. Colin was happy. Myron was happy. Seona was very, very happy. Even Fergus had to admit things were quite agreeable; Colin had even come to ask him for his daughter’s hand before the announcement was made; which he had grudgingly—or perhaps not so grudgingly to those who could read him, like Seona—given. Smiles all around.
Colin was in a deep sense relieved that Alinda had prodded him awake on the night of his birthday, had pulled him back from the brink, as he saw it, of giving her up for the giddy business at hand.
Over the next two weeks they saw each other nearly every day. He made sure to find the time, or to make the time if needed. During the week, if the weather was fine—Alinda did not like to travel in bad weather—she would take the lunch coach from Bearcliff to Greyfield, and often as not he would meet her at the coach stop and from there they would walk down to the cottage to spend the afternoon. She really liked the house and he was warming to it as well, though there was something about the low ceilings that took some getting used to.
Here they would talk, plan, joke, and fall, he felt, in love for the first time, again. She filled his life gracefully, and with such a perfect fit.
Toward evening she would catch the late coach back to Bearcliff, or not.
The two Sundays he spent with her in Bearcliff.
And in the evening, leaving her for Greyfield, again, as so often in the past, he felt not all himself in her absence, as if each time they parted she stole a small piece of him with her last kiss, to be returned with the next.
To be sure, yes, he still enjoyed the business dealings, the haggling, the leases and contracts, the negotiations, the maneuverings, but now always with some of his mind on Alinda, on seeing her again, and he shuddered sometimes at the thought that he had almost given her up, perhaps—were he to be brutally honest with himself—perhaps he had at some point given her up; for had he not during those weeks before his birthday begun to see her more as a drag on his success than a partner in life? So close to losing her.
It was the next to last Wednesday in April. Colin stood by the window in his hotel room, looking up at the long streaks of grey cloud—some so dark as to be nearly black—racing, gathering for mischief. The rain was not far off, and he wondered if he would see Alinda today. He thought it unlikely, for unless she had already left Bearcliff for Greyfield, the rain would be coming down hard over there by now. She would not travel in the rain.
There was a knock on the door. It was soft, a woman’s. At first, Colin’s heart rose, Alinda had taken the morning coach after all and was already here. Then he knew it would not be her, she would not knock. The cleaning woman then, or someone with a message.
He turned around.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s open.”
But no one entered. Instead the woman knocked again. He walked over to the door and opened it.
It was not the cleaning woman, nor was it a message. He wasn’t quite sure who she was, but she seemed familiar.
“Can I come in?”
“Why, of course.” He held the door open for her.
She glided past him, carrying a small bag in her arms, almost as you would a baby.
As she entered, her scent filled the room and brought a tingle to his ear. The scent brought her back: Mrs. Croft. He had danced with her at his birthday party; she had whispered things in his ear. Had she come along to the cottage? He didn’t think so, but wasn’t sure. By cottage time he had had a lot to drink.
“Mind if I sit down?”
“No. Not at all.” He closed the door behind him, then quickly removed the coat he had draped over the back of his armchair. He gestured toward it, “Please.”
She was a pretty woman, probably in her late twenties, or early thirties. She might even be older, for her makeup was expertly applied and played havoc with her age. She was shorter than Alinda, but shapelier, filled out in the right places. And that scent, it again recalled those dancy whispers, and he felt his cheeks warm at the words.
She eased herself into the armchair, then placed her bag on the floor, smoothed her skirts.
“What,” he said, coat still draped over his left arm, “can I do for you?”
“You’re about to get married,” she said.
“Yes,” he hesitated, “that is true.”
“That calls for a celebration,” she said.
“Ma’am, I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t even know you.”
“Oh, yes, Colin Lawless, you do,” she said.
In a way, he had to concede, that was true. They had met. Still. He found a hanger for his coat and dispensed with it properly, then walked over to his desk and sat down, facing her.
“I don’t see,” he began.
“You are one of the most amazing young men I have ever encountered,” she said, looking straight at him.
He had no idea what to say to that, but it was a very agreeable statement. He felt a blush rise again, but fought it down.
“You must realize,” she continued, “that you’re the talk of the town. You, and your dad, of course.”
“No,” he said, honestly, “I didn’t realize.”
“Oh, surely,” she teased. “Come on, false modesty does not become you.”
“No, seriously.” Or was it. Had it not occurred to him now and then that he was at the center of things, shining in his element as a lawyer-to-be, the forger of deals, the conceiver of ideas. Had not the thought occurred, and more than once; had not the notion taken hold, that he indeed was something special, and that people would, should—did, in fact—notice.
“I doubt that,” she said.
She was frank and to the point. Just like Alinda. But there was more to her. He could not put his finger on it. Where Alinda was clear water, a brook, Mrs. Croft was a river, stronger, the water murky, warm, and with currents.
Not knowing what to say, he didn’t answer.
Mrs. Croft leaned back in the armchair and crossed her legs. Her skirts rustled like the leaves of a tree. “I have never seen anyone, “she said, “or heard of anyone, your age, so skillful, so clever in business, so effective.”
Effective was a strange choice of words, he thought. But a very pleasing one. It was, he realized, exactly how he saw himself, and how he wanted others to see him, yes, effective.
“I’ve had a good teacher,” he conceded.
“Ah, yes, Mr. Lawless, your father.”
“But I hear that it was you who conceived the strategy,” and she stressed the word you in a very personal way. Poured her fragrance into it.
“That’s not entirely true,” he answered, while he wondered how on earth she would know, not from Dad, surely.
“But true enough to be stunning,” she replied.
This time he could not keep the blush from his face. He felt himself glow a little and turned away, glanced out the window, to conceal it. The rain had begun in earnest. Alinda would not come, he reflected; she hated muddy roads, the damp coach. Perhaps he would go see her instead, tonight. He looked at the sky a little longer, felt his blush subside and turned to face his guest again.
She had just said something which he didn’t catch. “I’m sorry,” he said.
She smiled but didn’t answer for a breath of two. Then said, “I doubt he could have pulled it off without you.”
“There may be some truth to that,” he admitted.
“Don’t you realize,” she asked, “don’t you realize how special you are?”
“No, quite frankly. Not really.” But he was quickly getting the idea, and it was not an unpleasant one, nor entirely foreign.
“I can see you as one of the great men of our country, given time,” said Mrs. Croft.
“I doubt that,” he said.
“Oh, I doubt nothing of the sort,” she said. “I am an excellent judge of men.”
A gust of wind drove the rain against the window, wet suicide pebbles, exploding. He turned at the sound and caught the sky turning violent. It would be a wet ride were he to travel to Bearcliff tonight.
He turned to face Mrs. Croft again. Something about her glowed. And he could not decipher her smile. Though in her eyes he saw admiration.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said into the brief, almost palpable, silence. And that was the truth.
Mrs. Croft brought her bag up to her knee and brought out a bottle of Champagne and two glasses. “And when I said celebrate, I meant it.”
Colin swallowed, twice, knocked farther off center by the sheer audacity of this woman, then he actually had to laugh. What on earth was she doing here, she was like no one he had ever met, or experienced. Unchartered territory. How do you react, how do you handle someone like this? He had no idea, but he was, he had to admit, curious to find out.
“You’re not serious?”
“Of course, I’m serious. Welcome to the real world, young Colin Lawless.”
She opened the bottle expertly, then poured a glass and held it out for him to take. He rose and retrieved it, sat down again. She poured herself a glass as well and place the bottle on the floor beside her.
“To your unbridled success,” she said, and held her glass out in a fine, well-manicured hand.
“To success,” he heard himself answer. Then took a swallow of the off-sweet, sparkling drink. He didn’t much care for champagne, same as with all other drinks. Still, this seemed not a bad make, or year. He smelled it. It smelled slightly of warm skin, or perhaps that was the glass.
“To long life,” she said, and again raised her glass.
“To long life,” he responded, and emptied his glass.
She noticed and retrieved the bottle, then held it up for him to come for a refill.
He hesitated. One glass was enough.
She held the bottle still in the air. On a strong arm, that seemed to have all day and would not take no for an answer. So finally he rose and extended his glass toward her.
Her hand cradled the neck of the green bottle almost tenderly, and again she poured, expertly, without a quiver, not a drop was spilled.
He returned to his desk, noticing the rain coming down in sheets now, if this didn’t let up, he would not even try to go. In fact, he doubted the evening coach would even run. He sat down.
The champagne—or was it the audacity of this woman—rose like an internal breeze, and he laughed again. Laughed what he hoped was a manly laugh but what he feared might have exited more like a giggle. She didn’t seem to notice or mind. Instead she arranged her skirts again, with a delicate, somehow delicious rustle.
“Where do you see yourself in ten years?” she asked. Her eyes, still firmly on him, now more curious than admiring. Her fine nose flared a little, and her lips looked moist, like strawberries just taken out of the ice box, beads of moisture, so nice with cream and sugar.
“Where do I see myself in ten years?”
He took a deep breath, then wet his lips with the champagne and—letting his imagination form a pleasant image—said, “I’ll be well established, I gather, as a lawyer here in Greyfield or in London.”
“Not still in your little cottage, then?”
“No,” he laughed, “I don’t think so. It’s too small. The ceilings are too low.”
“I thought so, too, the night of your birthday.”
So she had come along. Funny, he could not picture her in the cottage. Many others, but not her.
“I see myself in lots of space, under high ceilings, in large rooms, strolling wide lawns.”
“My thoughts exactly,” said the woman in the armchair, who this time rose, then came to his side of the desk to fill his glass. She brushed by him, slightly, in order to pour. Some of her warmth fell on his hands, on his fingers, on his desk and on the contract he was working on. When she returned to her chair her skirts did some more of their attractive rustling. Of many leaves. Of a warm breeze. Of fragrant currents. She was a very pretty woman. And shapely. Alinda’s bosom was kind of flat, well not really, her breasts were breasts enough, but flat by comparison, and Mrs. Croft’s breasts, he’d venture, were at least twice the size of Alinda’s.
And she understood his need of space.
“To large rooms,” he said, and toasted her.
“To very large rooms,” she said and smiled and drank.
“Maybe I will build myself a mansion here in Greyfield, with large rooms, and acres of lawns. And,” he added, warming to the growing image, “I will probably have a flat in London as well. Yes, that would be the way to go, a mansion here, a nice flat in London.”
“And what will you work on? What kind of projects, by then?”
“In ten years?”
He had thought about that, actually, and it was funny that she should ask. He looked at her again, at her curious eyes, slightly opaque now—perhaps from the champagne, he thought—looking right back at him.
He had thought about acquiring more real estate, even in London; thought about perhaps buying up dilapidated buildings and developing new ones in their place, like hotels—always a safe bet, it seemed; or restaurants, buildings that would not only retain and grow their value but that would also bring ample income in the process. He had thought about these things, especially this spring; and here, this curious, warm, very pretty and ample-bosomed woman seemed to know that he had. How strange that was, and how wonderful, really. He emptied his glass again.
“Buildings,” he finally answered. “Large buildings.”
She laughed at that, and she had a brilliant laugh. As warm as her fragrance, if a little husky. A laugh that went perfectly with those hands, with those lips, with those eyes, with that very brown, almost red hair. “Yes, I can see that. A brand new London, courtesy of Colin Lawless.”
At that, she rose again, retrieved the bottle, glided up to, then around him to refill his glass; only this time she did not brush him slightly to spill her warmth over him and his desk, instead, as she made ready to pour, she planted herself, quite decidedly, in his lap, slid her right arm—a strong, warm animal—softly around his neck, pressing her breast heavily against his side as she reached around for the bottle with her left arm—another warm reptile, then eased forward to refill his glass.
Colin, at first too stunned to object, then—sinking—discovered that he was too weak to resist.
Mrs. Croft, the more practical of the two, should have seen to the door, but she did not.
That is how Alinda, who indeed had taken the morning coach—slowed to a crawl by the fury of the weather—twenty minutes later, and soaked to the skin, walked in on the unbelievable.
She stood at the door for many seconds, shivering and blinking, simply not believing. Simply not believing. Then, she realized, of course, of course, relieved: she had the wrong room, and made ready to apologize, profusely, when Colin’s flushed face peeked up and around the thicket of dark red hair and caught sight of her. Not seeing her at first, but then did, finding her as unbelievable as she found him. Her heart stopped. It let go of several beats. She tried to swallow, but could not. She tried to think, could not. She tried to speak, could not. She tried to turn, could not. She tried again, could. She tried to run, could. Could. Could.
11 July 1843
Clement weather returned today, and the sun was warm and pleasant. A curious cloud here and there. The air was clear and fresh. We resumed our walks, the boy and I.
I’m not sure how best to describe what I observed in Colin today. The boards, the bars, the nails, the stones, the mortar that comprise his wall, seem somewhat looser, as if a gust of wind has made it through, as if a small crack somewhere is letting in air and sight and sound. No, he still does not respond to his name, nor does he say anything, but there is a little more of him in his eyes, he is a little more alive, that’s my impression.
I don’t know if there is any one thing that may have caused the change. But what I know is that there is change, and that I had better continue to do what I do.
12 July 1843
He insisted on eating on his own today. So far, naturally, we have fed him, Nurse Stanford or someone else working the spoon or fork. Today he wanted to do it himself.
This, Nurse Stanford—who can be a strong-willed woman—decided was nonsense, but the boy refused to eat unless he could do it by himself. Finally, they called on me to intervene and decide the conflict. I decided in Colin’s favor. It was painful to watch. I think most of the muscles in his fingers are damaged, for no matter how he tried, he could not grasp the spoon, and twice he dropped it in the soup, and once in his lap. He took no food at lunch—not for lack of trying, and took no food at supper, again, not for lack of trying. This boy has a will, something altogether too obvious from his self-mutilation, but something I must applaud. Let him not eat until he feeds himself if he is set on it. Yes, I applaud it.
For some reason he could not define—maybe it was that it looked more durable—he had thought of the thumb as less pervious to pain than his other fingers. The short rugged one. But not so. He had barely made a noticeable V trace in the rough bark before the bleeding started, and with each slanting line the pain grew worse.
It was as if this pain, this surprising severity of thumb-pain, knew no ceiling. It was so severe it silenced his fore and middle fingers, as if screams of the thumb made them all stop to listen to their tortured brother, maybe even commiserate; maybe even begging him, on the thumb’s behalf to please, please stop, can’t you hear him?
But though Colin certainly did hear, he would not listen. Still he traced those lines, slanting right, slanting left, slanting right, slanting left.
13 July 1843
On our walk today (the sky was overcast again, but no rain) I slipped Colin a cracker. He had had no breakfast, and must be starving. He had, according to Nurse Coventry, dropped the spoon in the porridge four times, and finally given up. Though he did manage to drink some milk, managed to bring the glass to his lips without pouring most of it on himself as he had done at yesterday’s supper. Nor did he have any lunch. Still trying, and trying, but not succeeding in handling the spoon and the fork with his broken hands.
He gave me a look that searched my face, was I mocking him, was I declaring his defeat? Then, rightly, he seemed to decide that I meant neither of these two things, that in fact I was going behind Nurse Stanford’s back more than anything, and reached for the cracker I was offering him. He dropped it. I gave him another, he dropped it. I offered him a third, this he received in his palm, where it stayed as he guided it to his mouth, hungrily. He stopped while he chewed. Then he turned back the few paces, stooped, and succeeded: he grasped one of the crackers in the grass between remnant thumb and forefinger—in a pincer grip more than anything, awkward and precarious wedging the cracker into the frozen damage—and brought it to his mouth. Ate it. And then he smiled. It was a grim smile, and not at me, at his hands.
He looked for the second missing cracker, found it, and repeated the process.
14 July 1843
The sun was out again today, and it was very warm, uncomfortably so. Still, we took our walk. I fed him contraband crackers again, which he can now grasp fine from my hand. He cannot manage spoon and fork yet, so now, as far as I can deduce, he now—since he still will not hear of being spoon-fed—lives on crackers and milk.
He stopped several times during our walk to look around for sources of sounds he heard. Cows lowing across the fields, the cry of a gull looking for his way back to water, hoofs of two horses and their riders on the road over to our right. Too warm a day to ride, I would have thought, but the two gentries seemed to enjoy the air.
After supper Nurse Stanford came to get me again. Colin apparently wanted to keep the soup spoon, he had placed his hand over it and would not let the nurses remove it. Let him have it, I said, to which Nurse Stanford objected. What if he hurts himself, or someone else with it? We have policies, she implied. I told her I thought he was finished hurting himself, and I did not see him as any harm to others. She looked at me for quite a while without saying anything, my guess is that she pictured Colin hurting his hands. Then she frowned, nodded. So be it, then. But it was on my head. I nodded, back: yes, my head.
15 July 1843
The boy, his tenacity, does amaze me. According to the duty nurse for the floor, Colin sat most of the night in his bed willing his hand to grasp the spoon. Willing, and willing it until at last he fell back against the pillow, and fell asleep, but with the spoon in his grasp.
This morning he ate his porridge by himself. I didn’t know Nurse Stanford knew the word, but I actually heard her say, under her breath, “I’ll be damned.” Not unpleasantly.
And during our walk today, he finally spoke.
What he said was, “No cracker today?”
I said, no, he’d had both breakfast and lunch, to which he did not reply. But he looked at me and his eyes were alive.
He fainted from the pain before the V reached sapwood.
And again, from somewhere high above him, he heard the tree laughing.
17 July 1843
Yesterday I visited doctor Talbot at Pembury Hospital. I wanted his opinion concerning Colin’s hands. Would he ever regain a useful command over his remnant fingers? Perhaps, perhaps, he said. Perhaps one day, if he can will those stunted muscles into compliance—which he said would be a long and arduous process—then yes, perhaps he could dress himself again, perhaps even use utensils, and so on.
I then told him about the spoon, and he flatly did not believe me. No, I said, I was quite serious, the boy was now eating by himself, and I relayed how it had happened. He quoted Nurse Stanford.
My Pembury visit made me miss our walk, and Colin was not happy that. He had been pacing, I was told on my return, most of the afternoon, the length of his bed. I went to see him, and told him I was sorry, but that duty had called me away. Tomorrow for certain, weather permitting, I promised. I think he understood, for although he said nothing, he stopped his pacing.
And during our walk today—the warm, clear skies are still with us, though the air is sultry—as if wet weather hovers just beyond the horizon—he spoke again. “Where did you go?” he asked. I told him, “I had to go to another hospital for the day,” but I didn’t tell him the reason. He seemed happy with my reply, and said no more.
18 July 1843
I was right about the weather. A storm, complete with thunder and lightning and high winds moved in overnight and is still with us, driving everyone and everything indoors.
I spent my time with Colin in the parlor. He said nothing, nor did he respond to anything I said. I cannot discern the difference: why, as yesterday, can he be quite sentient, even speak, and seemingly understand, and then, as today, be closed again, as if a ship battened down against a storm. What allows him to loosen? What forces him to batten down? I cannot tell.
He seemed unaware of me studying him. Studying his hands, he winced a few times at lightning, shivered almost; and cast many an uneasy glance out through the windowed walls at the darkling fury outside.
I take it he is not a friend of storms.
19 July 1843
His father came again today, despite the rain. They met in the parlor. To my eyes seeing his father made Colin batten down further. Throughout the visit, which did not last long, he sat in his chair, unmoving, staring down at his hands. I almost got the feeling that he, Colin, the person, had taken leave of his body, leaving it in the chair for his father to look at and touch while he himself went elsewhere.
So where did he go? Where does Colin go once the door is securely fastened and all the hatches are battened? Where does he hide? And why did his father so clearly make him flee? Is it from shame? From anger? Love even? I’m grasping wind here.
20 July 1843
No rain, nor sun. Still, we walked again, covering soggy grass and puddled footpaths. Colin was unresponsive. Still battened down. Though he did take pains to avoid puddles.
21 July 1843
I gave him a cracker today and it worked. He looked at the cracker, then at me, then he smiled. Took the cracker, quite deftly I might add, and ate it with apparent relish. Then looked at me again, and smiled. Opening up. He said nothing though.
22 July 1843
Fair-weather sailing today. Colin was not battened down so tightly. At the farmer’s next door, they were harvesting the grass fields for hay and the air was alive with the lovely aroma of newly-cut grass. Colin enjoyed that, too. He took many deep breaths and stopped often, but he said nothing.
23 July 1843
Rough weather again, we had to forfeit our walk. Also, as normally happens on Sundays, the parlor was used by several sets of visitors. For our daily time together, I brought Colin back to my office.
Upon entering he immediately recognized the chair, my monstrosity of a visitor’s chair, and plunked himself down in it quite cheerfully, bounced a little, did it again. It was as if he suddenly were six or seven again with nothing more on his mind than the springs of chairs. He smiled up at me when he saw me notice. Then stopped bouncing and grew serious, as a cloud moved in over his features.
He sat up and looked at his hands, almost with surprise. It was as if he had just traveled from childhood back into the less happy present only to discover the source of its unhappiness.
I asked him what was the matter, and though he looked up at hearing my voice, he said nothing in reply, nor for the rest of our time together today. He did look at me now and then, especially when he thought I didn’t notice, but I have excellent peripheral vision, and caught his glances just fine.
On his knees among decaying leaves, alternately looking up at the three finished letters, LOV, and down at his three raw, discolored, remnants.
A storm raged in his hand, his arm, his shoulder. And only the three letters. He thought again of the little blue bottle he had brought—it now seemed to him that fate had made him bring it, he was meant to use it—which would bring relief, but then he reminded himself again, mercilessly, that he had done nothing to deserve it, and that he had done everything to deserve the suffering of fingers.
Still on his knees, he straightened, and with his ring finger began to trace the E. One vertical line, three horizontal. One vertical, three horizontal. One vertical, three horizontal.
24 July 1843
Just before lunch a friend of Colin’s arrived from London to see him. One Andrew Jagger. Nice enough chap. If Colin recognized him, he didn’t let on—and my feeling is that he did recognize him but did not want to show that he did. Why? though, is my question. I think partly from shame, partly from some deeper motive, as if his past has no business in his present, and he’ll do anything to keep it, and any of its messengers, at bay, and where they belong.
Young Jagger took the meeting quite hard and had trouble holding back tears, that was evident. Colin’s hands, I am sure, came as a shock to him. Also, Jagger told me, Colin is thinner by far than he remembered him from school.
No walk today, the Jagger visit took its place.
25 July 1843
All battened-down again. Most likely it was the visit from Andrew Jagger, though I can’t tell for sure. But there was no Colin in his eyes during our walk. He kept his eyes on the ground, didn’t stop for sounds, did not even look up when a pair of larks, flapping and shrieking, chased a seagull away from their tree. Wandering his inside labyrinths, barely registering the world. Doors and windows all closed and shuttered.
26 July 1843
Same behaviour today. Not as much as a glance. As if his walls, his doors, his hatches, have consolidated their positions, dug in, and this time will not let him go.
He followed me a step behind throughout the walk, and whenever I turned to face him, his eyes were on the ground, and it was not as if he just looked down on seeing me turn, no they never left the ground. I don’t think they were seeing, just making sure of not mis-stepping, that’s all. Colin, for the moment, is unreachable.
27 July 1843
This morning Nurse Stanford reported that he had spoken during his sleep. One word, over and over. “Linda.”
It would have been “Alinda,” I replied, and she agreed, yes, that was probably it.
During our walk, which was much like yesterday’s, I asked him twice about Alinda, but he did not answer, nor did he look up. But I do believe he stilled, or froze a little, at hearing the name, as if something inside him suddenly stopped moving, the better to hear or the better to flee.
On writing this, I realize that I never did clarify with his father who she was, nor what his relation to her had been. Nor, for that matter, what it was Colin apparently didn’t know. I was supposed to have asked, or written.
I have just reviewed my entry from 25 June. Colin asked of his father, “How is Alinda?” His father replied, “Don’t you know?” And then, “Don’t you remember?” And then again, “Son, don’t you remember?”
This is significant. I must write Mr. Lawless now, before it slips my mind again.
28 July 1843
The sun was out again today, warm from a cloudless sky. I certainly enjoyed the walk, though there was no telling whether Colin did or not. He is all battened-down right now. Though he stilled again at the mention of that name, Alinda.
Just before dinner I received a reply to my inquiry; by special messenger, who must have ridden his horse quite hard.
Alinda, wrote Mr. Lawless in what struck me as an impatient hand, was Colin’s betrothed. Their engagement had been announced only three weeks before she died.
Betrothed! The boy was set to marry. A whole chapter of the unknown Colin Lawless sprang to view and possibilities emerged, reasons.
I continued the letter, where Myron Lawless goes on to tell me that he had assumed Colin was aware of her death, why else would he have done what he did to himself?
Her death? Alinda’s death? I read on.
So when his son asked about her, it had come as quite a surprise. Did Colin not know, or had he forgotten?
I put the letter down and leaned back in my chair, hardly daring to breathe lest what I had just read would prove to be imagination, or some trick of the light—strange, yes, but I feared that I yearned so much for a reason, for a way to reach the boy, that I may have devised one out of thin air. Finally, I collected myself and reached for the letter. It was still there, and it still read the same.
Reading on, it also inquired about the account, and whether we needed any additional funds.
This man is much about money.
Then I read the letter again.
And for a third time.
And that was the question, was it not: does Colin know, or does he not? Surely he must have known—I agreed with Mr. Lawless. If he did not know, then why would he have done what he did? Surely it was grief that drove him mad, that drove him to this, this tragedy of pain.
I need to know more about this, much more; and, Colin, I fear, will not be the source of this information.
The E was the hardest yet. It was the horizontal lines. They jarred his finger, and with each trace shot pain all the way to his shoulder.
And he was so very hungry, so very hungry.
He did not want for water of course, he had his brook, but the bread, and the cheese, and the boiled eggs he had brought were gone, and now there was only the tight fist of hunger in his gut, the unceasing pain in his hand, and the letter E which brought the pain to fresh peaks at every touch. For the first time the thought entered his mind, unbidden and terrifying: could he do this, could he complete this?
Then he thought, if only for a second, of Alinda, walking home through the rain, the many miles in the freezing rain, haunted, he knew, by what she had seen, inviting and clasping death to her chest, and he knew he could, would, must finish.
And so began tracing the E again, and again.
29 July 1843
I visited with Mr. Lawless today. On the way to Greyfield I learned from a both inquisitive and talkative teacher, who was the only other passenger on the morning coach, that the man I was going to see is somewhat of a celebrity. Owns the hotel in which he lives, owns most of the property near to the new station, and most of the surrounding countryside. It is also well-known, apparently, that his son is in the madhouse, as the teacher put it. Crazy from grief, went the common talk.
What happened? I wondered.
His fiancé, the teacher answered, killed herself.
Why? I heard myself ask.
Who knows, said the teacher. Why do people do things like that, especially young people with a life of plenty ahead of them, there is no telling. Shaking his head, the teacher—up against the unfathomable—fell silent.
Mr. Lawless lives in a four-room suite on the second floor. He has made one of the rooms into his office, which is where we met. We were constantly interrupted by messengers carrying letters and other papers. I realized, after a while, that I was visiting with a man who was escaping into his work to forget—or to avoid remembering— the fate of his son.
But I achieved the purpose of my visit.
Colin and Alinda had been friends from childhood, and sweethearts for almost as long. There had never been a question in his father’s mind about whom Colin might eventually marry, it was always Alinda. Never anyone else. This is obviously why Colin took it so hard, why he—and here the man could not complete the sentence.
Instead, and after a spell of tense silence, and with an effort of will, he told me that three weeks to the day after their engagement was announced in the local papers, Alinda was found dead in her room.
What was the cause, I asked.
Mr. Lawless said he did not know, though I’m not so sure he was being truthful.
Did she kill herself? I asked, remembering the teacher.
No. It was a quick, flat denial.
Who then, I wondered, would know how, or why she died?
This was not a line of questioning that Mr. Lawless approved of. “She’s dead. Isn’t that enough for you?” It was spoken like a threat and I decided to leave that question unanswered for now. There are other ways to find out, and I must not forget to do so.
Colin was very agitated on my return. Pacing the length of his bed, with speed. There, back, here, back, there, back. Would not take supper, would not stop, would not rest, I was told.
He stopped when he saw me approach. His face, accusingly—it struck me—wanted to know where I had been and why I had skipped our walk, though he said nothing. I apologized, duties elsewhere, et cetera, but that did not improve his mien, he was still upset, still accusing. I apologized again. For certain, tomorrow. For certain. He heard that, and he understood. Nodded. All right then.
I had Nurse Stanford bring him some supper.
The door behind him swung open again, silently. Then a soft knock, to get his attention.
“It’s getting late,” said the voice he recognized. “His” nurse. “Will you be staying the night?” she wanted to know.
He turned to face her. “Yes, I believe that was the plan. If it wouldn’t be too much bother.”
“Not at all, we have a guestroom.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
That earned him a smile. “Can I bring this?” he asked, holding up the Journal.
“Oh, sure.” Then, “Let me make sure that the room is ready for guests, then I’ll come back and show you the way.”
“I’d appreciate that,” He said again. Which earned him another smile.
30 July 1843
Another cloudless day, though not so warm. Quite pleasant, in other words.
During our walk, where Colin behaved much as he has done over the last few walks—head down, eyes mechanically scanning where he was going, little or no life—I finally said, “You’ve been calling out a name in your sleep.”
I spoke quite loudly, intending very hard for him to hear me, to reach him.
“Alinda,” I added, as loudly.
That did get a reaction. In fact, such a strong reaction that I regretted having spoken. He looked up and eyed me as if startled awake. Then he brought his hands to his face and began to scratch it, though not with much success, since his remnant fingers have no nails, and the bulky scars at the end of each seem rather soft.
Still, he tried, he tried to hurt himself; then he hacked once or twice with tears that first didn’t come, then came as he fell into a heap on the ground where he, covering his face with his hands, continued to sob loudly.
At this point I feared I had done him harm, for no matter what I said, or did, for the better part of twenty minutes, the boy alternately cried and moaned softly, as if in deepest despair, before he suddenly—and much to my surprise—stood up, as if a different person had just arrived to inhabit him and expressed disgust at such manners—brushed the dirt off his clothes, and looked at me, a little lost.
Needless to say, I did not repeat her name.
He then fell back into the previous pattern for the rest of the walk, eyes to the ground, guiding his feet.
The door behind him opened again, and that soft knock. And that voice, “All set,” it said. “Fresh linen and towels.”
He turned to see her hold the door open for him, ready to show the way. He returned briefly to the journal, noted the date to commit his place to memory, and closed the big book: a soft detonation.
“Great,” he said, and rose from the armchair.
“We don’t have guests often,” she said.
“I can imagine,” he answered, although he really couldn’t.
“He’s letting you read the journal,” she pointed out.
“Yes. He sure is,” he answered.
“Are you a doctor?”
“That’s odd then.”
“That he’s letting you read it.”
“As far as I know, he has only let other doctors anywhere near it.”
“It could be,” he said after some thought, “that I have something to give him in return.”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said.
He followed her down a long, very clean—it smelled outstandingly clean, and look at that floor shine—corridor, then up a short flight of stairs.
“What’s your name,” he ventured.
“Bonnie,” she said, halfway up the stairs without turning around. “Bonnie Leslie. And yours?”
“Trevor Brown. Nice name.”
“No, Bonnie Leslie.”
“Scottish,” she said. Great, great, great, etc., parents came from there.”
“Bonnie Leslie,” he said again.
“What?” This time, at the top of the stairs, she did turn around.
“No, just pretty, a pretty name.” And he meant it.
Some little ways down the equally clean second floor corridor, she said, “Here you go,” and held a well-polished oak door open for him.
He looked in on a small room, more like a monk’s cell, he thought, but also very clean. A narrow bed, a wash basin, a desk, and a small window set rather high on the wall, making him think this had been converted to a guest bedroom from some sort of detention cell.
He stuck his head in and again looked around, in mock horror, then turned to Bonnie and said, “Please tell his honor I didn’t do it. And that I will appeal.”
That earned him Bonnie Leslie’s light and very amused laughter.
She was about to leave when he asked her, “Does ‘love thyself last’ mean anything to you?”
That earned him a curious glance. “No,” she said, thinking it over. “Should it?”
“Sounds like Milton,” she said.
“That’s what I thought at first,” he told her. “Turns out to be Shakespeare.”
“Makes sense. Why did you ask?”
“That’s why I’m here. Those words.”
“That’s why you’re here?”
“I read them on a tree. Come to find out Colin Lawless carved them into that tree,” and he almost didn’t complete the sentence, out of propriety, but did, “with his fingers.”
She frowned. “How do you carve with your fingers?”
“You don’t, you rub.”
She tried to picture it, probably succeeded. “That must have hurt.”
He nodded, “Yes, that must have hurt very much.”
“Well, I must be off,” she said, voice a little less cheery.
“All right. Thank you so much for the trouble.”
“No trouble,” she said.
He watched her as she vanished down the hallway and then down the stairs, quiet shoes, quick steps.
Turning back into his little room he saw that the bed was made—his overnight bag, which he must have left in Wesley’s office—placed at the foot of it; the towel nicely folded by the wash basin. Service, that.
Once brushed (hair, teeth) and settled, he propped the ample pillow up between his back and the wall, and leaned into it to continue reading.
31 July 1843
Rain today. A thin drizzle—just the far side of fog—that seems to penetrate everything. Fortunately, we had the parlor to ourselves.
He is battened down again—I keep getting the picture of a ship in a storm, and I feel that that image is not inappropriate, nor too far from the truth. He sat himself gingerly in the smaller of the two armchairs, leaving the larger one to me. “Colin,” I said, and he looked up at me, at my voice. “What does ‘Love Thyself Last’ mean?”
His eyes remained on my mouth, then rose to my eyes, but he didn’t answer.
“I mean what does it mean to you?” I added.
His gaze lingered on my face for several additional heartbeats—I could feel them, his words making their way from his mind to his mouth, and I really expected him to answer. But instead, in the end, he shook his head, though that, to me, was as good as an answer. I had touched him.
I was about to take Colin back to his ward when he spoke. Clearly, calmly, as if he and I had done nothing but converse all our lives, as if he had never been quiet. “It means, love thyself last,” he said.
I must confess that I startled. Then I asked him, “To you? It means that to you?”
He nodded, “Yes, that is exactly what it means to me.”
“Why did you carve those words into the tree?” I asked, feeling I had nothing to lose by trying.
“To remind me,” he answered.
“To love thyself last?”
“Yes.” And then he added, after another beat or two of my heart, “And for penance.”
“Penance?” I asked. “For what?”
But then it was as if someone had just discovered that Colin had escaped, for he was summarily hauled back inside, slapped in irons, and everything was battened down again. At least, that is how I pictured it. He turned from a perfectly normal young man, not adverse to discussion, to the Colin Lawless I had come to know and expect, and with a frightening swiftness. He said nothing more after that.
It was dark outside, and a light rain had begun to fall. He could hear it like a soft brushing against the high pane, rising and falling with the wind.
He was tired.
Again he committed his place in the journal to memory, closed the book and placed it on the little nightstand, the book wider than the stand. He undressed, crept in between the sheets, the fresh linen that Bonnie Leslie had made sure he would have to sleep between tonight. She sure was a pretty woman, if a woman can be pretty. Beautiful was perhaps the better word.
He fell asleep debating the correct adjective.
Colin froze where he lay. Froze first, then nearly exploded in his effort to heave the now sweaty and quite ample Mrs. Croft off of him.
She swore. Whether at him, or at the interruption from the door, he couldn’t tell—nor did he care.
Then he was on the floor thrashing about for his clothes, knocked over the champagne bottle, which rolled, empty now, with a soft clang against the leg of his desk. He found his trousers, his shirt, and jacket. Socks, though, nowhere to be found. He gave up on them, stuck bare feet into his leather boots then ran out the still open door to catch up with Alinda.
He almost fell down the stairs in twos and threes, then across the foyer still clamoring for balance, and out into the pouring rain and an empty street. Left, right, straight ahead: Alinda was nowhere to be seen. Not that you could see very far in this terrible weather.
The event, the abysmal quality of the event had still to catch up with him. At this point he was just straining to catch sight of her, to find her and explain to her how come this was not at all what she might think it was. Not in the least. So that she would understand, so that he would understand.
The rain, however, indifferently cold and driving, had a very sobering effect on him, and as the minutes dragged on and still no sight of her, and as the rain seeped through first his jacket, and then his shirt, and then settled in against colder and colder skin, the might of the catastrophe caught up with him: Alinda had just seen him with in bed with another woman.
Not only was that an unimaginable thing, he had never as much as looked at another woman before—well, looked perhaps, but never, never with any unsavory designs or longing, just appreciatively like. The notion to yearn for someone else had just never entered his mind. Alinda was his, for life. And he was hers. That was his commitment—and their agreement: throughout his youth, though school in London, and upon his return.
Excepting perhaps Mrs. Croft’s lewd whisper and nibble on his ear on the night of his birthday, which had almost stumbled him, the notion of another was completely alien to him. There were no others.
But now this.
As the catastrophe took hold and settled in, it shifted about arranging space for itself, clearing away all else like so much debris: thoughts, plans, feelings, hopes, leases, contracts, railways, Mrs. Crofts, in the end leaving only him—undressed, defenseless.
The catastrophe, colossal, and still growing, took charge.
Colin knew it was over. Alinda was not the sort of person who would overlook this. She would never play second wife to anything, she told him precisely that on the night of his birthday, death was a preferable option. She would never, never.
A family of three, under as many umbrellas, hurried past him for the hotel entrance, casting him worried glances. A statue in the downpour. Not even brains enough to get in out of the rain. How stupid can a dog get.
But for him there was no rain, there was no family of three rushing for the hotel entrance. There was only the loss of his other half, his better part, the love of his life. And, as the catastrophe felt obliged to inform him, this loss was irretrievable. There was nothing, nothing he could do.
Mrs. Croft appeared at the entrance, unfolded her umbrella, turned right, and vanished with speed. Colin did not notice.
It was Myron who brought him back inside. Someone, a maid perhaps, had screwed up the courage to disturb him—against specific orders not to, mind you—and let him know about his son standing drenched in the rain catching his death, I shouldn’t wonder.
“Who was here?” he demanded. “Who the hell was here?”
Colin didn’t answer.
Myron sniffed the air, saw the green bottom of the empty champagne bottle against the desk leg. Took in the crumpled bed.
“Was it that whore?” he demanded, virtually screamed, at his son. Colin looked at him, at his mouth, as if it was talking in some odd tongue, one of an alien race, unfathomably different from his own. “Answer me for God’s sake, Colin. Was that Croft woman here?”
Colin finally understood, and managed to nod.
Myron quickly undressed his son and got him into bed, then ordered some hot water warmers to be brought to the room, and instructed the staff not to let anyone see his son. He was ill, needed peace and quiet. Then he quickly returned to his office to fetch his coat and umbrella. He had seen Alinda arrive, had cheered her from the landing; had in fact, said yes, Colin is in his room, before returning to his office. He knew what had happened. He knew why Colin had stood in the rain looking about for Alinda. He knew he had to do whatever a father could do to mend a horribly broken fence.
He paid the coachman five times the going rate to get him to Bearcliff within the hour, weather notwithstanding.
“Fergus,” he said on arrival. “We need to talk.”
“Jesus, man. What are you doing out in this weather?” as Fergus Leslie stepped aside to let the Myron in.
“Is Alinda here?” Myron asked.
“No. She’s in Greyfield, seeing your son, I gather.”
“Is Seona home?”
“Sit down. Please.”
Fergus did, and Myron explained.
Alinda’s father listened to Myron’s account in silence, and paled a little when he realized what this meant, would mean to his daughter. She was not the kind likely to forgive such a thing, especially not a week after her official engagement to the lad.
“She will not be taking this well,” he said finally.
“I know,” said Myron.
“What do you want me to do?” said Fergus.
“First of all,” said Myron, “I want you, more than anything, to believe and understand that this Croft woman can seduce a bishop if she sets her mind to it. She is outright poison. She would have had Colin eating out of her hand in minutes.”
“That does Alinda no good,” Fergus observed.
“I realize that,” said Myron. “I realize that.”
“So what do you propose?”
“You must help me make her forgive him.”
“You don’t know my daughter.”
“Damn it man, I do know your daughter. She is one of the finest persons I have ever met, and I know that Colin loves her. I know that. I cannot stand by idle to let…, to let my son’s utter stupidity ruin what can be, what will be—damn it—a beautiful marriage.”
“I will do what I can,” he promised.
“Thank you. My regards to your wife.”
Fergus Leslie nodded, then showed Myron Lawless out.
He did not shut the door after him, however; instead he grabbed his jacket from the peg by the door, donned it, and only then, as he made haste for the stables to saddle his horse, slammed it shut behind him.
Alinda did not arrive home until just after sunrise.
She had spent the freezing night first running then walking the considerable distance from Greyfield to Bearcliff—and not by the open road, where wind and rain brought too much chill to bear, but by forest paths, winding but better shielded.
The storm, however, was not a kind one, and with darkness and the falling temperature, the driving rain turned sleet and seemed to know just how to get around even tightly standing trunks to find her face and hands and legs. She had brought an umbrella, but had no idea where it might have gone to, lost somewhere back in that other world where Colin.
Her woolen cowl did some good initially, but as it, too, was soon soaked by the freezing rain, it now did little to warm her.
A part of her knew that she could not have seen what she thought she had seen, for the impossible does not exist. Another part of her, furiously awake, knew better, and this was the part that was doing the running. Yes, running still, even over uneven ground, and stumbling here and there and falling even, to gather herself, and back on her feet to keep running.
With darkness, and the ever heavier cloak, and the ever heavier steps, the path grew uncertain and split into two, then three. She didn’t remember which one. Chanced the wrong one, which seemed right for many a turn until it finally seemed oh, so wrong. She turned back, found another path, then another, and walking now—only the brief stumbling run here and there—knew she was lost.
And freezing, she could not tell that fatigue was setting in—it was quite furtive about it—but suddenly it made itself known, and made no mistake about it: she was exhausted and wanted nothing more now than to sit down, lie down, take a rest.
Another part of her knew this would lead to no good. She must not stop, she must not rest, she must not even slow down. She knew that it was too cold not to keep moving.
And so, all through the night, she stumbled along first one path than the other, slowly making her way toward Bearcliff, but by such a meandering route that none of the many men—and women too—now out looking for caught as much as a glimpse of her.
She almost fell through the door, flushed with fever and fused with grief.
She thought she saw Colin in their kitchen, sitting by the table, and she made to leave again, but the person who rose to catch her was not Colin, it was her father who—holding her very closely—over and over asked the same question: “Where have you been girl? Where have you been?”
The family physician who attended her the following day explained to Fergus and Seona that he had never seen pneumonia catch a quicker hold, or a deeper one. It was, he said, as if the patient was willing it to devour her.
And three days later it had.
Colin had caught a slighter cold, one which did not have a long, freezing and wet night’s opportunity to grow stronger, and after those same four days he was now sitting up in bed, sipping hot soup, again asking his father if there had been any word, any word at all, from Alinda.
“No, son, no word at all,” lied Myron Lawless.
Myron Lawless got word of Alinda’s passing the following morning.
His world emptied.
He did nothing, absolutely nothing, for perhaps an hour. He did not think, he did not feel, he simply sat in his office, staring out at, but not seeing, the sky, steeling himself against a fate far too cruel to acknowledge.
Then his first actual thought: Colin must not know. Anything would be better. She fled to America, to Australia, to some distant relatives in Scotland, never to see him again, yes, anything would be better than the truth.
Then his second thought: No, Colin would find out, sooner or later his son would find out, and he would then never forgive his father for lying.
Then his third: This must be done now. Now, while I have yet to think of all the reasons I must not.
At that, resolved to do the right thing, he stood up and walked the thirty or so paces down the hallway to his son’s room.
Colin had finished his soup and was now leaning back into a small mountain of pillow, feeling miserable, glancing out the window, at the clumsy clouds, not quite rain clouds, not quite fair-weather, not really knowing what they were, patches of blue here and there, all without conviction.
The door opened and his father entered.
After a brief, almost hesitation: “Yes, son.”
Colin sat up, expectantly. “Can I see her? Is she home? Is she here?”
“What then? What is the news?”
“She is no longer, son.”
These were words that did not add up to meaning. Colin tried, but he no longer seemed to have the faculty with which to grasp how they would fit together.
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“She caught a terrible case of pneumonia.”
Colin said nothing.
“She is dead, son.”
“She is dead?”
“Alinda is dead?”
No, this Colin could not accept. “How could she possibly be dead? How could she possibly have caught pneumonia? It wasn’t as if she walked all night in the rain.”
“That’s just it son, she did walk all the way home that night.”
As the final word struck the air—as Colin paled at their arrival—Myron Lawless knew that they had been precisely the wrong thing to say.
For after a deathly still moment, when Colin’s face turned even paler and his eyes even wider, his son screamed.
Screamed and screamed until the doctor arrived and, with the help of Myron and two other men, finally managed to force some laudanum down his throat.
Some minutes later his boy fell silent.
Opium is not always a purveyor of pleasant dreams. Some say it is, and perhaps it can be so, but pleasant dreams are only dispensed by opium to easy minds, to carefree drifters, secure in their innocence.
For the guilty and tormented, opium has only one mission: to vivify the anguish, to turn the wrack one more notch, to bring color and depth to the shadows of despair. And with Colin, that night, it was spectacularly successful.
Alinda in her white dress. They are in the meadow, and she has said yes, yes, yes, oh, yes, and they have agreed to not tell anyone, not yet, not for a while. It is their secret—their happy, happy secret.
And then the dagger appears from nowhere, finds its way into his hand and as he pins her to the ground—for her wonderful tallness, she still is no match for his strength—staining her white dress with dirt and grass, he presses the knife against her throat and presses with an easy slicing back and forth, slowly, slowly, through skin, through flesh, through vessels, through windpipe, and as the warmth of her life erupts from the wound and colors his arm and hand and knife first red, red, red, then darker as greedy air greets her blood to mix and thicken, her scream stops for she no longer has voice to scream with. And then she is dead.
Alinda in her white dress. Why is she in the water, doesn’t she realize? Colin wades in to save her, but changes his mind halfway there. Instead of taking her outstretched hands and pulling her out of the stream and onto the grassy shore, he gains a firm hold on the top of her head and presses down and down and down below the brownish surface of the little river. Her dark hair has no intention of joining its drowning head and floats up to the surface where it spreads out like linseed oil on a pond. Alinda struggles and struggles, even screams, once, but there is no second scream for now her lungs have filled with water, and now she turns desperate and thrashes about for her life, and then she stills. And then she is dead.
Alinda in her white dress. She sleeps in it for some reason, on top of her bed. She does not wake at his entering the room. She does not wake at his pouring lamp oil on her bed, all around where she sleeps. She does not wake at his shutting the windows so tight that she can never get them open. She does not wake at his lighting the oil and seeing those hungry little flames gain hold and speed all around her and into the bedding and down onto the floor and into the bed frame itself. She does not wake at his leaving the room and locking the door from the outside, then wedging it shut just to make sure. But then she wakes. And screams, and screams, and screams. And then she is silent. And then she is dead.
Alinda in her white dress.
Trevor woke at first light. He did not like to sleep anywhere but in his own bed, in his own flat. Something about unfamiliar bed springs, unfamiliar rooms, unfamiliar air, none of them his. His preference notwithstanding, however, he had to admit, he felt refreshed, he had slept as well away from home as he ever had. He sat up, gazed out through the high window at a still grey but rainless sky, at least as far as he could tell.
He brushed his teeth, washed his face, reached again for his overnight bag only to discover that he not brought his cream and razor, oh well. He brushed his hair then sat down on the bed and picked up the journal. Yes, he thought, he would wait here for someone to come and fetch him, and with a bit of luck that would be Bonnie. Bonnie Leslie. Nice name.
He leaned back against the wall, and re-entered the journal.
He had left them on the last day in July. Easy to remember.
1 August 1843
It is still raining, and coming down much too hard for our outside walk, although Colin still seemed to want to.
You don’t want you to catch a cold, said Nurse Stanford, who was there when I came to get the boy. This got a very curious, I would say almost hateful reaction from the boy, a how-dare-you? expression on his face. As if she had said something unforgivable.
Instead of our walk, we spent our time in the parlor again, but he remained unresponsive throughout the period. I asked him again about “Love Thyself Last” but he looked at me as if he was trying to place my face. Then he looked at his hands for quite some time. As if willing them to talk.
I asked him about the tree, and the carving, but again, my words, if they reached him at all, seemed to carry no meaning for to him.
2 August 1843
Grey but walkable weather. Colin seemed relieved to see me. He wants out, and he, for the first time is ahead of me through the doors. He waits for me on the gravel forecourt. I look up to see if umbrellas may be called for after all. No, they’re not. More blue than grey, actually, and I walk down the steps to reach him.
Almost at the far end of the park he said, “Love Thyself Last.”
I said, “Yes?”
Yes, I said, I knew that. “But I only had ten fingers,” he said. “And I could not bring myself to start over.”
I had no idea what he meant by that, so I said nothing, hoping for more. He, however, did not elaborate, instead he set out across the grass, getting his feet wet. There was nothing for it, I had to follow, and my feet followed suit.
Back inside, Nurse Stanford told us both off for messing up the floor, and I swear the boy smiled again, but not so she saw. We were in collusion against a common enemy. Yes, I smiled back, we had better watch ourselves with this woman. I bet he understood. He looked like he did.
3 August 1843
His father was back for another visit. It never does the boy much good. He battens down severely. His father’s presence is something painful to him. Colin becomes a ship in the storm of his presence. I could not reach him at all once his father left.
Neither did I get the opportunity to ask him again—as I had meant to do—how Alinda Leslie had died.
It just struck Trevor, and he looked up from the journal and shuddered slightly at the thought: Alinda Leslie? Bonnie Leslie? If it was, it would be too strange.
No, he decided. Coincidence, surely.
He looked for his place and found it. Started again at the top of the paragraph.
Neither did I get the opportunity to ask him again—as I had meant to do—how Alinda Leslie had died. He seemed in a hurry to be gone, and remembering the last time I tried, I decided to wait for a propitious moment.
4 August 1843
As with the day after his father’s prior visit, Colin is still battened down (curious how I have grown to embrace this expression—it’s too apt to let go of). I cannot reach him.
We had a longer than usual walk, Colin to my right, and slightly behind me again. Not quite sleepwalking, but not far from it, though he did stop once to listen to some rooks bickering in a tree, almost black with a cloud of their kind. Suddenly the two combatants took wing, one chasing the other, followed by the entire tree taking to the air, it seemed. Dark foliage rising into the sky, not to let the adversaries out of their sight—leaving a green replica of itself behind. A very curious illusion.
As the cloud of rook veered left and soon vanished, Colin looked over at me: did I see that? But said nothing.
He was crying as he finished the E, softly screaming his tears. Not even his already maimed fingers had prepared him for pain like this, or warned him it was possible. For each thumbed horizontal line jarred, and jarred, and seemed, with each trace, to reach deeper and deeper, through his shoulder, to his chest, to his lungs, to his stomach—suffering its own hunger pains now, but nowhere near loudly enough to get much of his attention—and up into his heart.
And still he traced it, and traced it complete.
Until the sapwood shone through, wider and wider, and then he washed it with water he carried carefully in the wooden ladle with his good left hand, and it was finished. The first word: LOVE.
Without rest—for he knew if he did rest, if he went to the lean-to and sat down, he knew he would use the laudanum, would probably drink it all, he knew he would not continue. So, without rest he began the next word: T.
One vertical line, one horizontal line. One vertical, one horizontal, one vertical, one horizontal.
His little finger entered shock and didn’t hurt for a while, or if it did, it was insufficiently loud to make itself heard.
5 August 1843
A cloudless day. Colin has by now become quite apt at maneuvering his fork and spoon. I skipped lunch today and stood in the dining room door waiting for him to finish, observing his movements. Though there still must have been some pain in his remnant fingers, he nonetheless clasped, willed his broken muscles to clasp, his utensils adroitly. From a distance, and if you’re slightly myopic like I am, there was no singling him out from the patients next to him on either side. Just another patient having lunch.
On rising from the table he saw me right away, and headed in my direction. As he approached I said, “Impressive.”
“What is?” he wanted to know, much to my surprise.
“How you handle your fork,” I said. And that earned me a smile.
Well outside, he led the way, which I have come to take as a good sign. And that he stopped often to listen. He had stopped again and was gazing up at a hawk, very high up, so high up I had to adjust my glasses and focus just right in order to spot him, when Colin turned to me and said as if he was simply carrying on Wednesday’s conversation, as if no time had lapsed. “I could not bring myself to start over.”
“What do you mean?” I asked
“I had only the ten fingers, one finger per letter. I needed five more.”
“Love thyself last?”
“Yes. Fifteen letters.” Then he asked, “You have been to the tree?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And what does it read?”
“It reads, ‘Love Thyself Last,’” I answered.
“All fifteen letters? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am sure.”
He shook his head slowly from side to side, and his dark hair, greying ever so slightly at the temples, most likely from his physical trauma, swayed along with it. “The tree,” he said.
“What about the tree?” I asked.
“I don’t think you would believe me if I told you.”
“I think I would, Colin. I know that you are capable of truth.”
“Yes,” he said, reflecting on my words, “I guess I am capable of truth.”
“What about the tree?” I asked again.
“The tree,” said Colin. “The tree finished my carving for me.”
Now that, of course, I did not, could not, would not believe.
When I didn’t answer right away, he looked at me quizzically, as if making up his mind whether to go on. I returned his glance as openly and as sincerely as I could—all the while my mind raced for what exactly I should say, or even could say without betraying my disbelief—but the boy is nothing if not perceptive.
“That’s what I thought,” he said.
“What do you mean?” was the best I could do.
He shook his head again, this time from what I read to be slight disgust, with himself—for trusting me—or with me, for not believing him, I could not tell. “No,” is what he answered. Then he said nothing more, no matter what I asked or said.
I thought about his statement for the better part of this afternoon: “The tree. The tree finished my carving for me,” and I have made up my mind to go back to Glen Row tomorrow morning to look at it again, more closely this time. Of course, it was out of the question, but perhaps I should find some clue as to what made him believe that the tree had carved the final five letters into itself.
6 August 1843
I rose with the dawn and took a light breakfast in the kitchen. The cook and her little crew were surprised to see me. The groundskeeper and his young boy were there too, having their coffee and scones. I asked the boy if he could prepare a horse for me, I would need to ride an errand, and offered him a shilling. “Sure,” said his dad, and took the shilling.
The dawn grew pink then light blue almost green, and I realized I had not seen a sky like this since I was a child. I made a mental note to rise early more often. The horse underneath seemed to enjoy the sight too, looking up now and then and shaking its head in wonder, well, seemingly.
I arrived Glen Row midmorning, a little warm from the vivid sun. At first I had some trouble locating the site, but then I spotted the little brook, and followed it to where I recognized the glen and the oak. I tied the mare loosely by the water—which she drank, a little warm too—while I returned to the tree.
The lean-to was undisturbed, if a little damaged by the rains. I tried to imagine—and this was not easy—the tremendous pain in his hands, him crawling back in under the branches, the foliage of his shelter, at the end of the day, and enduring; knowing full well that a drop or two of the laudanum would alleviate the hurt, but refusing comfort.
I tried to imagine him spending what must have been sleepless nights with hands wracking with fire. And what must it have been like to crawl back out of that shelter come morning to start anew? I shuddered. I could not imagine.
No, I could not, I cannot—now as I write this—I cannot conceive of such a will, of such endurance. It is not the act of a boy, or of a man—I have seen many a grown man tremble and cry at the slightest physical pain—it is the act of a saint, of someone not quite of this earth, for those of this earth, at least those I have observed, are incapable of such a sacrifice.
With thoughts like these I approached the tree, slowly, almost reverently. The words shone in the morning light. What struck me now was that the letters carried no traces of blood. There must have been bleeding aplenty, yet the letters looked fresh and clean, shining with sapwood, white with a tinge of green.
Shining: LOVE THYSELF LAST.
I bent down to look closer, and yes there was a difference between those five letters and the earlier ten. They were beautifully carved, almost melted into the bark.
My next thought was a little odd. This thought was: well, by that time he would have become quite skilled at it.
I shook my head at my own insensitivity. If by that time, as he had told me, he had spent one finger for each letter, he would have already damaged, beyond use, all ten of his fingers, with, yes, five letters to go. To then choose the least damaged finger, to reopen the raw wound, to start again, no I could not imagine anyone alive as capable of doing that. Not even a saint.
Still, fact remained—I was looking at it—there were fifteen letters carved in the oak’s bark, very clearly. At this point I did not know what to believe, though I knew what not to believe: that the tree finished the carving for him.
Perhaps someone else, someone finding him, taking pity on him, talking to him, helped him finish his gruesome mission. Someone with a knife, perhaps, or a chisel of some sort.
And examining the letters again, it grew quite apparent that someone else had indeed carved those last five letters. They did not have the mark of the boy, they were cleaner, clearer, shapelier, though not incongruously so; they appeared—and the word came to me then—effortless.
No, these letters, I concluded with some certainty, had not been carved by the boy.
Though, still studying them, I also had to conclude, with similar certainty, they could not have been carved with knife or chisel, for there were no sharp edges, such as a knife or chisel would leave. The last five letters looked poured, or melted, into the bark.
I honestly did not know what to make of this. All I knew with an unwavering certainty was that neither the boy, nor the tree, could have made those letters.
I returned to the hospital too late for our walk; besides, another patient had thrown a terrible tantrum—and where had I been? Nurse Stanford wanted to know. I did my best to calm the woman who was still screaming in her cell, but there was nothing for it, I could not reach her. In fact, I can still hear her, faintly, in the basement.
Colin was not happy about missing the walk, especially in the very fine weather we had today.
The T seemed easier to trace, although his little finger was not as strong as his other fingers had been. Also, it began bleeding almost immediately. But it didn’t seem to add much fresh pain. Perhaps because it is smaller, he thought. Or perhaps because he could no longer hear, or differentiate one finger’s scream from another’s.
For this second word, the second line, he stood with one knee on the ground, adjusting his height accordingly. THYSELF.
One vertical line, one horizontal.
Now and then his little finger did its best to make itself heard, and now and then it managed, but not often.
And still he traced. At times he had to guide his right hand with his left: down one vertical line, then left-to-right one horizontal.
T. T. T.
6 August 1843
We had our walk in silence. I feel that I have lost the boy’s trust, at least to a degree, by not accepting his fantasy about the tree finishing the carving for him. I need to regain that trust, and I believe that if I can establish what actually happened, I can share that with him and earn it back. The truth.
After our walk, I visited the constable and asked him who had found the boy. He said it was in the report, but when he looked it over to show me he discovered that this had apparently been left out. He called on one of his assistants and relayed my question to him.
A Mr. Merridew, apparently. Of Glen Row. His dog found him. Out walking they were when the dog ran off. Mr. Merridew followed. He found the dog by the boy. The boy was asleep, or fainted, by that tree we saw, sir.
Did they have Mr. Merridew’s address, by chance?
Yes, as it happened.
I thanked the constable and his assistant very much and returned to the hospital.
The woman is still screaming in her cell, though softer now, soon she’ll have no voice left to scream with. Nurse Stanford has said nothing, it wouldn’t be her place to, and she’s a good one for protocol, but I can tell she feels I am beginning to neglect my other patients in favor of the boy.
7 August 1843
The dog is a small, well-groomed cocker named Lucy. Oh, yes, I am sure, said Mr. Merridew, she must have smelled him, the blood on his hands or the blood on the tree. He had tried to wash it off, he confided, there was a still-wet wooden ladle by his side, but still, there was a lot of blood left in them letters.
Yes, she’s got quite a scent she has, Lucy, must have smelled his blood from half a mile off, took off as if after game she did, even though I called her back, wouldn’t listen, would you, Lucy, and reached down to pet her.
Mrs. Merridew offered us tea and sandwiches, which I gratefully accepted.
“What was the boy doing when you got there?” I wondered.
“Well,” he said, in the sort of well-rehearsed way that authorities on subjects like to assume, especially with an attentive audience—I was certain he had told this story many times over the last two months, over a pint or a cup, local celebrities, him and Lucy the cocker. “Well,” he said again, “when I finally caught up with her she was halfway into the woods, by the little brook. Well,” he looked up at me, “you know where it was, of course.”
“Yes,” I said. I had been there.
“And there she was, close by the boy, sniffing him gently, curiously like, as if to make sure that she had reached the source of the scent. When she saw me coming she looked up at me, proud like, and wagged her tail.”
“And the boy?”
“Well, at first the boy was just lying there, like so many rags in a pile, but Lucy, her nose can be real cold like, must have stirred him awake, for then he scrambled to his knees and then looked at the tree, the leaned against it and began hugging it.”
“He hugged the tree?”
“Yes. He hugged it with both arms, and then began talking to it like, whispering. And then I saw his hands sir. His hands.”
“Yes,” I said. “We know about his hands.”
“How are they, sir?”
“As well as can be hoped for,” I answered. “Even a little better. Almost healed.”
“Well, I’ll be,” he said and looked up at his wife. “Did you hear that? Healed already.”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “Pretty well.” Then I asked, “Could you hear what he said to the tree, what he whispered?”
“No, sir. There was no telling. And when I leaned closer to hear, he noticed me and fell silent. No, not silent, he was moaning, moaning like, but no longer speaking, or whispering, rather.”
“Do you remember what it said, what he had carved?”
“Yes, sir. The first word was easy to read, fairly clean, and not so much blood, he had probably washed it clean. It said ‘LOVE,’ in capital letters.”
“Love,” I repeated.
“Yes. And the second word—this was harder to read, what with the blood, and I guess little particles of finger hiding them letters, and it seemed these letters had not been washed near as well as the first ones, but I could still read them fine.”
“What did they say?”
“They said, also in capital letters, ‘THYSEL.’ Thyself without the F.”
I must admit that his words drained my face, and Mrs. Merridew noticed for she asked me if I was well. More tea, maybe? Yes, I said, that would be nice.
“Have you been there again, lately?” I asked, curious to know whether he had a theory about the last five letters—which, I recalled, the constable and his men had not seen either when they came to get the boy.
“No, sir. Wouldn’t go back there for a spell, for anything.”
“Why, sir? A madman, that. Bad luck that. I know some as have gone back there, though none too close. Eerie spot it is, they say. No, I won’t go back there anytime soon, I shouldn’t think.”
“How is the boy doing?” Mrs. Merridew asked, part politeness, part curiosity.
“As well as can be expected,” I answered, and that apparently was satisfactory, as answers go.
“Did he say anything to you, the boy?” I asked Mr. Merridew.
“No,” he said. “He looked up at me as I leaned close to him to hear. But the way he looked at me, I might as well have been another tree. His expression changed none at all. Then he fell down, in a heap like, and hugged the roots of the tree—that’s how come I got a good look at the letters,” he explained. “Then he rose to his knees again, and leaned up against the tree and moaned and moaned.”
“And you?” I wondered.
“I put Lucy back on her leash, and we walked, fast as we could, to inform the constable.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And you have not been back since?” I asked again.
He looked at me, then back at his wife as if to ask her what was the matter with me that I had to ask that again, hadn’t he just told me? And told me why not. Then back at me. “No,” he said. “No, sir. As I’ve already said, it will be a spell before I go back there.”
I declined a third, or fourth, I had lost count, cup of rather good tea, and said my thank yous and goodbyes.
Colin was pacing when I returned, and although there was a lot to attend to, and although it was now mid-afternoon, I nonetheless took him outside for our walk.
He said nothing though, and would not answer my questions.
And I do have questions. Who carved the last five letters? Who on earth could have? It certainly was not Mr. Merridew, of that I’m sure, and no one else could have done it between the time he found him and the constable arrived, for they too saw only ten letters, their report states it. So someone, after the boy arrived here on the 8th of May, and before I went there for the first time on the 18th of June, had completed the quote. Who on earth?
Who on earth? thought Trevor and looked up from the Journal. Who on earth, indeed? The sky was still grey outside, that kind of morning grey that usually lasts all day. Stirring from the narrative he noticed that he was hungry, starving in fact. Shouldn’t there be breakfast by now? He checked his watch, which read seven thirty-five. Well, perhaps a bit early yet. Someone would come and get him, soon.
Bonnie Leslie would.
8 August 1843
Rain again today. I was glad to see the parlor was empty after lunch, as I brought him there. He is not sure of me now. There is a distrust. He has not forgotten my dismissing his fantasy—though not in so many words. I told myself I must never forget how perceptive the boy is.
He chose the smaller chair; I the brown settee.
“Colin,” I said. And I looked him straight in the eyes, the better to bridge the distance between us. “I know that you didn’t finish all the letters.”
“I have told you that,” he said.
“You did,” I said.
A knock on the door.
“It’s open,” said Trevor, looking up from the journal.
It was Dr. Wesley who peaked in; not who he had hoped. “Good morning,” said the doctor. “Sleep well?”
“Yes,” he said. “Quite.”
“Care for some breakfast?”
“That would be great,” said Trevor and closed the journal.
“How are you coming along?” asked Wesley, nodding in the direction of the large book.
“It is a fascinating document. I’m up to early August.”
At this the doctor only nodded, and smiled, part to Trevor, part to himself, then turned around and set out down the hallway for the stairs. Trevor grabbed the journal and caught up with him.
“He is beginning to talk,” Trevor said.
“Yes, off and on.”
“You’ve met Lucy?” asked Wesley, ahead of him down the stairs, looking back.
“Lucy the dog?”
“Lucy the dog.”
“Yes, I’ve met her, and Mr. Merridew.”
At the bottom of the stairs he stopped and asked, “What do you make of the five missing letters?”
“That was going to be my question to you.”
“You should be done reading by lunch, let’s talk then.”
They served a hunter’s breakfast. Buffet style. Eggs—fried, scrambled, poached, boiled—toast, potatoes, ham, bacon, you name it, orange juice, tea, and, yes, coffee. He poured himself a large mug, and sat down by his host who introduced him to two other men in white frocks. Colleagues as it turned out, and not very talkative. Looks like it’s clearing up, yes, though probably not before this afternoon, that sort of thing.
A great breakfast, though. He poured himself a third mug of coffee and brought it along to the library, again by Dr. Wesley’s side. The doctor held the library door open for him, “I’ll see you at lunch,” he said.
“Thank you,” Trevor replied and entered, surveyed the empty room, selected a chair by the window, walked over to it and placed the mug of coffee on a side table. Then he remembered: he rose, turned and ran to the door which he reached even before it had fully closed.
“Dr. Wesley.” Leaning into the hallway.
“Yes.” The doctor turned around. A little alarmed.
“I left my overnight bag in the room.”
“Ah. You do like to leave that behind, don’t you?” Smiled.
Trevor smiled back. “Sure do.”
“I’ll fetch it for you. Do you need it now?”
“I’ll bring it to my office then.”
Trevor returned to the room, walked over to his chair, his steaming coffee beside it. He sat down and took another sip of the strong, black coffee.
Outside the lawn was covered with leaves of different sizes and colors: orange, brown, red, black, and a mist had gathered. To his right a radiator sprung to life, and a good thing too, he thought, it was rather cold in the large, windowy room.
He opened the journal, found his place, and reread the last few lines.
“Colin,” I said. And I looked him straight in the eyes, the better to bridge the distance between us. “I know that you didn’t finish all the letters.”
“I have told you that,” he said.
“You did,” I said.
“So who did?”
“I have told you that, too.”
“You know I cannot believe it was the tree,” I said.
“You can believe what you want,” he replied.
“How can a tree possibly?”
“Believe what you want,” he repeated, with an edge this time.
“How are your hands?” I asked, feeling the time was right to mention them.
He looked down at them, as if surprised that I had noticed, then held them out for me to see. “Do you think they still qualify?”
I was a little incredulous. “Do you mean, as hands?”
“Why sure, yes, they qualify. Of course they’re hands.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“How do they feel?”
“Still ache, especially at night.”
“Do you want something for them, some relief?”
“No.” A quick, almost vehement reply. As if I had suggested something immoral.
Then I asked, to at least bring the question out into the open, now that we were talking. “Why, Colin?”
“Why?” he said, then looked at me, then at his hands, and then fell through some interior trapdoor and said nothing for the rest of the day.
Perhaps I asked him too soon. Perhaps I brought the subject of his hands up too soon. But I felt I had to, for he had unhatched, was open, and I could not let that opportunity go to waste.
His father arrives for a visit tomorrow. I hope that it will not set him back too much this time.
He brought water back to the tree, three times. The first time he dropped the ladle on the way back. The second time he shook so much from the hurt that he had spilt most of the water by the time he reached the tree. The third time he managed to bring enough water back to wash the T free from his blood and the moist little pieces of bone and flesh that his little finger had left behind. When he had finished, it shone, with the rest:
He looked at the bleeding and discolored lump of pain at the end of his right arm and wondered whose hand that could possibly be.
Then, in a cooler and slightly removed space, he wondered why he had not thought of starting out with his left hand. He should have anticipated the need for strength, and the need for familiarity now that pain was his world. For now, the coming letters would have to be carved with his left, and his left hand knew nothing of the alphabet.
Then again, he answered himself, perhaps that was a good thing. Perhaps by making it to do what it has never done he could keep some of its hurting at bay.
He looked at his left hand, at his five undamaged fingers, decided upon the thumb. He would use the left thumb for the H. But first he must sleep, or at least lie down, for beneath the constant roar of pain he was so very, very tired.
The night was clear and hot; or he was running a fever. He made an effort to differentiate but could not. He was sweating, which would mean a fever, but it was warm, his skin was not clammy, just wet. Lying on his back he held his right hand up in the air, away from whatever might crawl on the ground and find its way to blood and open wound. The effort kept him awake, the pain kept him awake, and the image of Alinda, drenched and frozen, kept him awake. Towards dawn, the world and its utter exhaustion forced him under.
He came to with the sun already well up. For a brief moment he could not feel his right hand at all, then he woke all the way up, greeted by a dull ache that seemed to occupy the entire right side of his body, pulsing with the blood from his hand, discolored, gaping, undressable, still in the air—he had slept with his arm in the air? he tried to make some sense of this, but could not—away from crawling things that like blood.
He was very hungry. He could not, he thought, could not continue without something to eat. Berries. He was in a forest, and he thought of berries. He crawled out of his shelter and thought of berries. Stood up on unsteady legs and thought of berries; then went looking for them.
And he was lucky. By the brook lived a whole colony of wild strawberries, some as large as gooseberries, oh, how Alinda loved them. He sat himself down in the midst of the happy red plants and set out to devour.
He did have the sense to stop before he made himself sick. He drank several ladlefuls from the brook, and then, the sun at noon by now, returned to the tree, willing his left thumb to be brave and began the H. Two vertical lines, one horizontal. Two vertical, one horizontal.
H. H. H.
9 August 1843
Again, Myron Lawless’s visit did set him back. There is something about his father that recalls to Colin the source of his ordeal, the reason, the why he did that to himself. And to protect himself, I guess, to shield himself from that internal storm, he battens down. And but good this time.
Before he left I asked Mr. Lawless if he had been to the site where they had found his son. He glared at me as if that were none of my business, sir, then answered that he had not. He had no interest in visiting the place of his son’s mutilation, he said. But you knew about the carving, I asked. Yes, he said, but would not elaborate.
“How did Alinda Leslie die,” I asked, still wondering.
“Pneumonia,” he said.
“Pneumonia,” I repeated, to which he said nothing, but nodded curtly and left.
This man does not like me.
10 August 1843
Colin remains battened down, weathering his storms in silence. We took the walk in an almost drizzle, call it a heavy fog, thick enough to yield to gravity. He trailed me slightly throughout, saying nothing.
11 August 1843
I could repeat yesterday’s entry verbatim. Except I thought I detected tears in Colin’s eyes toward the end of our stroll. But it could also had been the fog gathering and condensing.
12 August 1843
The sun was back today. A stray cloud here and there. It was a beautiful day. Colin almost smiled when I came to get him.
I noticed as we set out on our walk that his canvas and ropes were loosened again, he was more attentive to things around him; he heard things, stopped, and looked; he turned to follow a raven through the air.
He looked at me twice, did smile.
As we reached the edge of our property, marked by a juniper hedge bordering the farmer’s fields, I sat down on the bench, and invited Colin to sit as well.
He did, stretching his legs out before him, and flexing his—it’s hard to think of them as hands, really, but they are of course. I held out my hand inviting him to give me his, which he did. His hand in mine, I examined it more closely than I have done before, now that they are mostly healed. Most of his fingers are worn down to a third of their original size. How the boy did not bleed to death is beyond me. Perhaps the slow, constant wearing on muscle and bone kept the bleeding down, or perhaps he kept it down by sheer willpower, I believe I will never know.
If this, this self-mutilation is what he set out to accomplish, then he succeeded. If carving the three words is what he set out to do, then he came up five letters short, for someone else to finish, someone not a tree.
“Why?” I said, looking at his hand in mine.
“Why,” he said, and fell through the same trapdoor. It is a question, apparently, not to be asked; not yet at any rate.
We completed our stroll in silence.
13 August 1843
I returned to the tree this morning, and made it back in time for lunch, so as not to upset Colin.
I had to see the five letters again. They keep me awake at night, for they truly are an enigma. I needed to make sure—although I was already sure—that Colin had not in fact carved them himself. For one thing some fingers, five of them, would then be worn more than the others, and they all seem worn about as much. One letter per finger, that’s what he said, and his hands seemed to corroborate.
This time I had brought a burning glass. Once by the tree I kneeled and studied the letters through the glass. First the last five, then the rest. And again. And I saw clearly—beyond doubt—that there is no way in this world that those letters—the first ten, and the last five—were carved by the same hand.
Magnified, the last five are startlingly different. They show none of the effort, none of the rough wearing at the edges as it were, of the first ten letters. Nor are the first ten letters, although they are legible enough, as geometrically precise as the last five, or as smoothly poured—yes, I keep coming back to that word, poured. It’s a strange word to use for a smooth groove, but it’s as if a small river, poured by steady hand, made the letters. Or, as if welled up. Yes, as if welled up.
And that, of course, rules out knife or chisel; anything sharp.
I left the tree more mystified than I arrived.
I now know that I must bring Colin back here. I must get him ready to face this site, this tree. Perhaps then he will find the strength to tell me why he did it.
Throughout our walk he trailed me by a step, in an almost palpable silence, as if to remind me that the central question of why was still out of bounds; as if punishing me for asking it. No, that is not a fair statement. It is more as if he is punishing himself for me asking it. It is a matter too painful for him to face as yet, of that I am sure.
He woke the following morning into the overcast and grey. He had slept an hour, two at most. Slept a sleep bordering on the comatose—for the pain had chased him down steeper and deeper chasms into deeper and darker regions, for only there did the pain quieten, though still howling the far side of those dark walls.
But now it had found him and it screamed him awake.
He hungered as much as he hurt—and part of him marveled at that, that hunger would still make itself heard, even for him, even through all these screams.
He made it back to the wild strawberries to still the lesser fury, but only to discover that he could no longer pick them. His left thumb, or what was left of it, was incapable of any such work. Instead he had to kneel, elbows to the ground, and eat the berries directly from the stems, picked one by one with his teeth.
As he ate, tiny mouthful by tiny mouthful, he imagined that the plants perceived his plight and offered the berries up to him, knowing well what he was doing, and why. After a while he grew certain that they did just that, that they took pity on him, that they gladly helped feed him.
Even so, it took the better part of an hour to still his hunger. He then drank some water directly from the brook, incapable as well of using the ladle. How was he to wash the letters clean? he wondered vaguely. But first, there must be letters to wash. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps he could carry the water in his mouth, one mouthful at a time, then spit it out on the letter. He would cross that bridge.
And there was still the H to finish.
Steering the left hand thumb toward the letter, he found the hand refusing to cooperate; it would not span the final few inches to touch the tree.
Colin looked at the hand, astonished. Had it found volition in his sleep?
Again he steered it toward the unfinished H, and again, the hand simply would not comply. It was like a dog that refused to obey. Not for anything in the world. Only this dog could not be kicked or whipped. So Colin did the next best, he bit it. Hard and deep. Drew blood through his teeth to teach it; showing it who’s the master, who’s the servant.
Part of him tried to make sense of this, this crazy action, but then, was anything sane anymore? At that the image of Alinda appeared to answer all such questions, and Colin asked how his rebelling thumb and conspiring left-hand fingers dared to even question what must be done.
With that—or perhaps fearing another bite—the hand submitted to his will and the thumb finally made boney contact with the left stem of the unfinished letter.
Colin screamed another H, then another.
And many more. Many, many more. And then three more times, and then three more times, and then it was finished. Sapwood.
Clean and shiny. And he didn’t understand: clean and shiny. There was not a trace of blood or bone or tissue in the letter, as if the tree had taken care of the cleaning detail.
Had it, could it? He looked at his mutilated thumb as if it knew the answer. Which it didn’t, it knew nothing but hurt. A sixth harmony to the existing storm of five.
He looked up at the tree. Had it?
The tree said nothing.
He took another look at the H just to make sure, and, yes, yes, he was right. The letter was clean. In fact, it was cleaner than the other five, and this without his washing them. Did the tree know that he was unable to carry water now? Again he looked up into what he thought of as the tree’s face.
Again, the tree said nothing.
He settled on the forefinger for the Y.
Y. Y. Y.
14 August 1843
Mrs. Seona Leslie, Alinda Leslie’s mother, arrived unannounced today. To see Colin, is all she told the nurses, and she was almost turned away before word of her arrival got back to me. Yes, of course, of course she can see the boy. She knew him well. And, I thought, seeing her may do the boy some good. At the least she will touch places I can’t, not as yet. Though, I must admit, I also feared that it might disturb him.
Colin was torn at her sight, that much was plain.
He was very happy to see Mrs. Leslie, but at the same time distraught at the memories she evoked, at least that is how I saw it.
As for Mrs. Leslie, I have to admire the woman for not showing the slightest aversion at the sight of his hands. In fact, she took them in hers—and he let her—as if to warm them, as a mother would a child’s little hands, pale or blue from a snowy winter’s cold. “Look what you have done to them,” she said, actually admonishing him. “I know,” he answered. “I know.”
Then she asked, “Did it bring her back?”
“For a moment,” he answered.
I did not know what to make of that, but I could see that it moved Mrs. Leslie deeply.
Once she left, Colin fell silent—as I had feared— and would not answer any of my questions.
16 August 1843
Three new patients arrived yesterday, two of them assigned to my care. Both violent. My entire day was taken up by interviews and diagnoses and trying to calm them.
Today has not fared much better. Another patient arrived. A young girl, nearly dead from starvation. Her mother, a wild-looking woman with a very loud, almost manly voice, insists that the girl was trying to kill herself for no good reason. The mother, to me, looks the more disturbed one, no wonder, I thought—though not very professionally, I must admit—any daughter of hers would try any escape possible, even death.
The upshot of all this commotion is that I have had no time for Colin for two days. I must make sure to see him again tomorrow, and weather permitting—it has been pouring down—to resume our walks.
17 August 1843
Summer returned full strength today. It was almost oppressively warm after lunch, still, not too warm for our walk, so—my other duties discharged to everyone’s satisfaction, including my own—I went to get Colin. He had been pacing again, I was told. Off and on over the last two days. He was happy to see me. And cross with me for abandoning him. Said as much during our walk.
“Where were you?” he wanted to know.
“Three new patients arrived.”
“How many patients do you have?” he asked.
“Fourteen,” I said, truthfully.
“So, I’m crazy.” A statement.
“You’ve done a crazy thing.” I offered.
“By whose yardstick?” An astute question.
“The constable’s, your father’s. And mine.”
“Fair enough,” he said. Then asked, “Though not by mine.”
“I’ve gathered as much,” I said. “I assume you had your reasons.” Which, I realized, was a roundabout way of asking the sensitive question, why? and I held my breath, lest he disappear through that trapdoor again.
He didn’t, instead he said, with a sigh, “You assume correctly.”
I almost, almost asked what that reason could possibly have been, but thought better of it. Instead I asked, “Would you like to see the tree?”
A little to my surprise he smiled at the question, and said, “Yes, very much. I would like that very much.”
We finished our walk soon after this exchange, and I am making preparations for a day’s journey back to Glen Row, me and Colin.
18 August 1843
Too much ado with my recent patients to get away today. Perhaps tomorrow. Colin, during our walk asked about when, when could he see the tree? This, I firmly believe, is a very good sign.
Perhaps tomorrow, I answered him. It depends. Perhaps tomorrow.
The Y was finished by the following afternoon.
How long had it taken him? Colin wasn’t sure whether he had slept twice, or once, or whether he had fed on the wild strawberries once or twice or not at all since he began this letter. It might as well have been a year ago, and all of it pain.
Pain as alive as heart, as lungs, as alive as the air you breathe, and inside everything, in his every thought, in his every reflection.
Sometimes he hurt so much, his fingers, his hands, his arms, that he had to pull away. That was the motion, he was pretty sure of it, but the strange thing was that the forefinger—on his left, his unaccustomed hand—kept tracing the Y, while he, Colin, the person, pulled back a few feet to watch.
Oddly enough this didn’t seem so odd, this standing aside from his body, watching himself from a distance. On some level it was a familiar feeling, more familiar than the pain he still perceived but now through the veil of separate—clearly enough to be sure, but muted, diluted, distanced, while he, the person, watched the Y, Y, Y of his hand.
Then, lulled by the farther away pain perhaps, or what seemed like that, he found himself back in his body, the furnace itself, the shock of returning jarring him unbearably awake, unnaturally awake.
Twice he pulled back this way, twice he returned during the carving of this so very painful Y.
And again, once done, the tree did the cleaning.
Once he had laid bare the sapwood and now stepped back to look, he could see, could actually see the tree dissolving the blood and tissue matter from the trace to leave only the light, almost pulsing wood beneath.
Then he fainted. From hunger or from pain? that was a question he actually asked himself as the ground swallowed him and he heard the tree again, not laughing so much this time, as smiling.
19 August 1843
No, today was not the day either. And to make matters worse, his father came again. Colin was as unhappy as before, and as untalkative. Though I am happy to report that he did not batten down his hatches quite as hard this time. Perhaps it is the prospect of seeing the tree again—which he is very eager to do—that helped him weather the storm.
Barring any unforeseen disasters between now and tomorrow morning, we should be able to make our journey then.
20 August 1843
I am no longer convinced that the tree did not complete the carving.
We left by hansom soon after breakfast. No disasters to keep me at the hospital for the day, I am happy to say. Colin said nothing on the journey there, but looked about, looked up, smiled now and then, happy to be away from the hospital and the grounds by all signs.
He looked over at me once or twice, curiously, as if wondering where on earth I had learned to drive the hansom. Well, I never did—and it is not easy. Colin seemed amused by my amateur display. The horse, thank God, was better trained than I, and we arrived at our destination in spite of my feeble efforts.
As we approached the woods, Colin tensed noticeably. He no longer looked about, no more smiles. I found a place to park the hansom and tie up the horse. I had brought him some oats, and we left him chomping happily, job well done, despite the coachman.
To watch Colin approach the site was not unlike watching a man approach a known danger—or, perhaps, a deity. One slow foot at a time. When he spotted his lean-to he shuddered. And then he saw the tree. Rising, yes, majestically in the early light, catching the sun on its upper branches and foliage. It struck me then as a young (though fully grown), proud tree, welcoming us into its presence.
Colin approached the tree in the same manner as the place itself, slowly, step by step, reverently, uncertainly. About three feet away he stopped and read the inscription. All there as before, all fifteen letters.
He fell on his knees then, touched the F of ‘Thyself’ with his remnant forefinger, traced it lightly. Traced LAST lightly, and fell forward against the trunk. I could not see his face then, but I believe he was crying—his shoulder said as much.
It was at this point that the not-so-easy-to-believe happened.
I am still wondering whether it could have been an hallucination, but I have never in my studies, or in my experience, come across an hallucination this vivid, this complete, and—if indeed an hallucination it was—this seamless: As Colin leaned against the trunk, and then embraced it, the tree, with its lower branches, curled down and embraced the boy.
Of course, writing this now, seeing those words traced in blue ink on white paper, I see how incredible it reads, but looking back I cannot find the seam. I cannot find the moment when the world around me ceased and hallucination took over.
Despite all logic to the contrary, I have to conclude that it happened. It did happen. And it happened for perhaps a minute before, with what sounded like a sigh, the branches slowly swung back into their ordinary place, all unconcerned again.
Colin, if he had noticed, made no sign of it. He remained where he was, on his knees, embracing the trunk, speaking softly now, and I could discern the words “Thank You” more than once. Then he finally rose and seemed quite surprised to see me, a little dismayed even. Then the recent past seemed to catch up with him—it was me, after all, who had brought him there—and he nodded in recognition, as if in greeting. I nodded in return.
“Did you notice?” I asked after some time.
“Yes.” Thinking I meant the letters.
No, he had not noticed. “What about the branches?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said.
“The branches,” I said, and pointed at them, “they came down to embrace you.”
He didn’t answer me at first, he just smiled, as if: of course, of course. Then he said, “I am forgiven.”
“Forgiven what, Colin?”
He smiled at me, as if the question had no meaning, or as if it did not warrant an answer. So, instead I said, “You spoke to it.”
“I thanked it.”
“For F, L, A, S, and T.”
“That the tree carved.”
“Yes. Like I told you it did.”
Then I simply had to ask again, risking—I knew—that he would batten down again, but I did not have a choice. The moment was right and it invited, almost demanded, the question.
For a moment Colin hung in the balance between surfacing and drowning. It was a long moment. Then he surfaced.
“I killed her, Dr. Ash.”
It was the first time, I realized, that he had addressed me by my name. And it was odd, I also realized, that I had never noticed before that he never had.
But what I said was, “Alinda?”
“But your father tells me it was pneumonia.”
“That was my weapon.”
“Cold, rain, sorrow, despair, treachery. Killers all.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
The door opened softly without a knock.
“Coffee?” she asked from just inside the door.
He turned to see her, tray in hands, kicking the door shut behind her rather expertly—the heavy library door closed with a sigh and a soft click.
“Yes, please,” he said.
She brought the tray over to the low table, and he noticed she had set it for two. “Mind if I join you, I’m on my morning break,” she said.
“Oh, of course not.” Almost too pleased to manage.
She had gathered her hair in a stern pony tail, which accented the contours of her face, angular but finely chiseled, like a statue he had seen once but now could not recall where. Some museum. She sat down on the settee with a soft rustle of skirt and apron.
She poured the coffee. Rich, dark, steaming.
Watching her, with Alinda Leslie fresh in mind from the journal, he then heard himself ask:
“Would one of your great, great, et cetera father’s name be Fergus?”
She laughed at my recalling her phrasing, then stilled at recognizing the name. “How on earth would you know that?”
He didn’t answer right away. Instead he said, “Who had a daughter named Alinda and a son named Seaghan?”
“Yes, Seaghan Leslie. He was my great, et cetera father. And, yes, he had a sister named Alinda who died young of a broken heart. At least that’s the family lore.”
When I said nothing, she said, a little alarmed, “How on earth can you know that?”
“You have not read this,” he said, indicating the journal in his lap.
She shook her head. “As I told you, Dr. Wesley lets no one read it.”
“You must read this,” he said. “I will ask the doctor to let you.”
“I’m in there?” And then she laughed, realizing the impossibility of that.
“No, not you.”
“No, of course not.”
“But Fergus, and Alinda, and Seaghan are.”
“What are they doing in there?”
“This journal, as I am beginning to see it, is the story of Colin Lawless and Alinda Leslie.”
“Alinda, my great, et cetera aunt.”
“And you’re right,” he said. “She did die of a broken heart. Colin broke it.”
“I was never sure the story was true, and I certainly never heard who was supposed to have broken it.”
“Colin Lawless,” he said. Then he gestured at the journal, “He’s admitted as much already.”
She shook her, slowly. “Why didn’t they tell me?” she asked, more of herself; meaning the doctors, the people who knew.
“I don’t know.”
“Better drink before it gets cold,” she said then, nodding at the coffee, still steaming in the white mug, but not as enthusiastically as before.
“Yes,” he said.
“Why, by the way, are you so interested in Colin Lawless?” she asked.
So he told her about the tree.
Alinda in a white dress.
The image is still with him for the room holds it; the sky, clear and blue now with no trace of storm, holds it. The young sun shines it through the lace-curtained window high on the opposite wall.
For a few moments Colin does not remember, only wonders at her image, only wonders where she might be that her face is so everywhere.
Then he knows, again and again he knows that she is gone.
He has sweated through the night; both the sheets and the pillow are moist, nearly wet. He should be cold, he reflects, remembering other nights when fevers broke and he found himself shivering between wet sheets in the morning. But here, someone has lit a fire in the night, and the room is quite warm, too warm in fact. He sits up, swings his legs over the side of the bed and onto to floor.
Alinda in a white dress.
He rises, but quickly sits down again, losing the room and the sky as he almost faints, does in fact faint. But only for a brief spell. He sits up again and sits on the edge of the bed for some time, finding and collecting himself, forcing his eyes to see, his ears to hear. And they do. The wind outside rustles some leaves, the shrill neighing of a horse from not too far away, a bell from farther away still.
The room returns for him. The thin ribbons of light high on the wall return. The wash basin with its soap and razor and brush return. The blue, as yet uncorked, bottle of laudanum now sparkling with the sunlight tossed at it by the mirror returns.
He rises again, and remains standing this time.
Alinda in a white dress.
She would never let this go, he knew that. Never. Not his Alinda. That was not something she would do. She would never forget.
She would never forget the moment, that horrible moment, that now comes rushing back at him: Mrs. Croft on top of him, panting like so much dog, sweating like a wrestler, rendering him completely, excruciatingly, happily useless. He is riding along, panting along, too, wondering at the things she knows, and then the door opens.
He hears the loud gasp, and he recognizes the gasp, and he knows that his life has ended. Still, he has to make sure, and twists himself out from under the energetic woman, and sees, sees in the doorway, pale, and oh, so achingly beautiful. Alinda. His Alinda.
Alinda in a white dress.
She had not worn a white dress this time, though, she had worn grey and green and brown and white. A coat, long and brown and cowled, wet from the rain pelting the window now, above a grey jacket, a white blouse, a long green skirt. Then the brown and grey and green and white in the doorway turned and vanished out of his life.
That was the last he saw of her, the grey and green and brown and white vanishing.
But now in a white dress: by the washbasin, by the door, on the sill, in the armchair, and God how he missed her, knowing, knowing with every sight of her in her white dress, how deeply, still, ran his love for her, and how severe and unforgivable his betrayal.
He might as well have shot her, or stabbed her, as betray her like he had. One crime as good as the next. Alinda as dead.
He dressed, not quite sure why, or where he planned to go, but it was something he felt the need to do. He had to leave this room, this room where he had sacrificed her life for his pleasure. He needed to leave this town, where he had sacrificed her life for the enjoyment of buying and selling, where he had betrayed her.
He dressed carefully, completely, and left the room.
The day was still young, no one about. He went down to the kitchen for some coffee, some bread. He ate quickly, then gathered half a loaf, some boiled eggs and some cheese in a towel, and stuffed them in his coat pocket. He was going away, he knew he had to leave, better bring some food.
Part of him seemed all decided upon a course of action, where another part of him sat back, bemused, shaking its head in wonder: Where to, Colin? He had no idea, but he acted as if he knew precisely.
He stepped out of the hotel, onto an almost empty street. Sunday empty. Could be. He gazed at the sun, still barely above the horizon. Early then. Or both.
His first impulse was to retrace her steps, to kill himself just like she had by catching pneumonia in the rain on her way to Bearcliff, but the weather was not on his side, there was no rain in this sky to do the job.
Well, kill himself he must, that grew from seed to certainty in a single breath. But how? What death could possibly atone for his betrayal? What anguish deep enough to repay hers?
When he thought of anguish he remembered the fevered nights, the dreams, the horror, Alinda in a white dress, and by what they had forced him to drink, laudanum, surely? he remembered slipping, hearing himself scream while slipping into his nightmare.
What of nightmare strong enough to kill?
He thought of the blue bottle still in his room, perhaps if he drank the whole of it terror would find and kill him.
He returned to his room, spotted and retrieved the bottle. Yes, it was full, he had used none of it. It was enough to do the job. He put it in his pocket, along with his provisions.
Once back on the street he turned, not left toward Bearcliff, but right, toward away.
Away from Bearcliff, away from Alinda, from Fergus and Seona and Seaghan, away from Greyfield, from father, from property, leases and money. Away from Mrs. Croft and all that she knew how to do. Away and back into nightmare, the one he deserved.
It was a beautiful April morning. The air was alive with birds bickering, with trees rustling, with livestock lowing and prancing about. Horses, those not already in harness and asked to pull things, stood about, taking their time chewing, and ignoring cows. It was a spring morning such as the poets sing about, but none of it visible to Colin through Alinda in a white dress.
He was on foot on the dirt road leading away from Greyfield and toward Glen Row, many miles away.
He had resolved to kill himself and this had gained him a measure of peace, a measure of able to place one thought after the next, calmly, precisely, knowing it would all soon be over.
But as he walked, fast and with purpose—though he had no clear idea of exactly where he was going, or where he would kill himself, or how—the one thought after the other arranged themselves to tell him that he deserved worse, much worse. Told him that he did not deserve the dreamy escape—nightmares or no—of laudanum. And he remembered, though not precisely who had said it, that drinking a full bottle of laudanum was probably the easiest death you could choose. Was it his father who had told him, or his father’s doctor? He could not remember, but the words came back to him, clearly: the easiest way possible to die. If you’re in a hurry, he had said—his father’s doctor, surely, must have been, but whose name he could not put his finger on—and if you want to take the easy way out. Those were the words, yes. One word, the easy way, laudanum. Lots of it. You fall asleep, you don’t wake up.
That, he now saw, was out of the question. He should suffer.
And here came another thought, this one subtler, but more to the point: wasn’t any death the easy way out? Well, answered another, tooth for a tooth. Death for a death. No, not in this case, said the first; there was no telling what sort of a tooth would be the same. There was no way of telling how much she had suffered that night. There was no way of knowing the weight of crushed dreams, nor the pain of suffocation by loss.
There was no way he could really know how much it hurts to die from sorrow. Perhaps that is the hardest death of all, for is there anything but sorrow if you do? You die from sorrow; you die into sorrow. Can you leave sorrow behind in death? There was no way for him to know how much he had hurt her?
No, he decided several miles east of Greyfield passing a small lake to his left, an oak grove on his right; no, death was not the way, it was too good for him, it was not punishment enough. Death would not atone for his crime, for his betrayal, for his—he thrashed about for the word for several minutes, then found it—for his self-love. For his placing himself above and before all else. For loving himself before all else. This was the flaw, he realized, the stone in his eyes that had blinded him, not once but twice. Once on the night of his birthday, in their cottage, when he was ready to give Alinda up for the world of parcels, properties and contracts, the world of heady deals.
Had he not known then that Alinda would suffocate him, tie him down, hem him in, drown him in her love for him, and seeing this he had been quite ready to let her go. But she had saved him, offered him her hand and pulled him out and onto safe land.
Then again in his hotel room with Mrs. Croft—whom he could no longer picture clearly, she had faded into lust: the name he put to the surreptitious and overpowering force that had seized him that day, that had risen out of nowhere and without his say-so to wrestle him to the ground. In his mind Mrs. Croft and lust were one and the same.
Here he brought the train to a halt, for something was not quite true. He was ever so slightly deceiving himself. There had been a moment of choice—a moment of say-so—though fleeting and hardly noticeable. There had been a clear decision to invite that force, the beast, that lust, at the very moment when she sat down in his lap and he felt the weight of her breast against his chest. His first reaction had been to shed this woman, to stand up, and let her fall where she may, ask her to leave. His second thought had been that it was really raining now, and that Alinda would not come today. His third thought was that she would never know. And his fourth thought unlocked the gate to let the monster in.
All in one quick blink of his eye: his decision, his self-love. And damn the rest of the world.
Alinda in a white dress. Drenched to the skin, clenching her jaws to keep her teeth from shattering, already running a temperature with many miles to go. What demons had visited her then? What had death whispered to her? What pains had she battled?
That was his deed, that was his self-love. That was his sacrifice at the altar of Colin Lawless. That was his crime.
The morning still danced and frolicked all round him. Little clouds of white and blue butterflies rose from seemingly nowhere, then dived as quickly out of sight, starlings bickered again about who knows what, a pair of rooks crisscrossed the sky for the sheer enjoyment of air, wondering perhaps who was that lonely figure on foot down below, and where he was headed, and why he looked so glum. Winds, those who weren’t chasing the rooks, chased each other across the fields in a wispy game of tag. A rabbit stuck his head up out of his burrow wondering, too, where that somber boy was going. Ants were busy being busy, and the sun saw it all and thought it grand.
If all the things nature was up to that morning: the singing, the dancing and playing, could be summed up into one word, it would be: laughing. Laughing at its own joy of being alive.
But none of this touched him, for he had gone blind to life.
It was early afternoon by the time he reached the woods. He was not at all certain where he was, but he knew what he was looking for. An oak. And he knew what he meant to do, what he had to do to atone for his crime, for his killing Alinda. He would tell the world, with pain, what it must do, what he should have done, what all must do, lest they kill their Alindas the way he had killed his: love thyself last.
At first he wasn’t sure where the line had come from, or whether he had thought it up himself. Then he remembered the play, he had enjoyed it—although his father had complained about the cheap production, look at those costumes, et cetera—and the line, Love Thyself Last, had stuck. Not as a motto, but as a sort of warning, one he should have heeded, for it was now, on his way here, that he had realized that they had indeed been a warning: love thyself last.
He would carve this warning into bark with his bare fingers. He would bleed the letters into a tree. He would endure whatever pain it took. He would write with his pain, and he would offer every moment of hurt to the god that had helped kill her, in exchange for her happiness, for her peace. He would buy her soul with his suffering. Yes, he would do this, or he would die trying.
The woods to his right, now that he had made his decision, looked as suitable as any, and he left the road. He crossed a narrow field, and stepped in among the trunks and the softer light.
It was not a dense wood, mainly ash and beech; each a respectful distance apart, leaving the others enough space to breathe, to grow. The ground was soft with moss and old leaves. He walked for perhaps ten minutes till he came to a stream: clear water over stones and dying twigs. Water, yes, he’d need water. This was a good place. He looked around. A little farther on, over a little to his left, he saw a small clearing, and at the edge of it, a soaring oak. That was his tree.
But first things first, and he was nothing but practical. His penance would take days, perhaps weeks, he wasn’t sure, but he was sure that once he began, he would not be able to do much more than breathe and continue.
He needed a place to rest, and so set about constructing a lean-to from branches, leaves, and moss. Not the best he’d ever seen, but good enough. He crept in, emptied his pockets of the bread and cheese and eggs, and the little bottle of laudanum, then spread his coat on the ground as flooring. Yes, it would serve, the roof looked fine, he looked up but could see no daylight through it.
He crept out again, stood up, brushed some moss off his trousers, faced the clearing and the tree.
It stood perhaps fifty paces from his lean-to.
Waiting, or ignoring. As Colin approached the oak it struck him as not at all that friendly, as not in the least in a mood to have his bark tampered with, especially not by him. It wanted no part of human business.
Atonement, penance, human, don’t come to me.
But this was the tree he had seen and selected, and Colin, at heart, was nothing if not very stubborn. This was the tree.
He walked around it a few times, looking for the best spot, avoiding his strong roots, there to trip him. He returned twice to the side that faced the clearing. Yes, that was the best side, the smoothest, broadest, and, what’s more, the side most likely to be seen by others. He chose a spot some four feet off the leafy ground, and pictured it:
Well, he would have to crouch, or work on his knees for the lower words. Perhaps higher up, no, the bark gnarled too much, objecting strenuously. His chosen spot was fine, the right spot—even though, as he felt it with his hands, it too was not a little gnarly. This would not be easy. But then, and Alinda in a white dress, it was not meant to be easy.
He placed his right-hand forefinger against the bark and drew a vertical line. Then re-drew it. Then drew it again.
Bonnie Leslie had trouble imagining the pain Colin Lawless had endured. She kept shaking her head, not comprehending how anyone could.
“How long,” she said. “How long did it take him?”
“I am not sure,” said Trevor. “A week, at least, I think. Maybe two.”
She didn’t answer, couldn’t.
The door opened again behind him and a woman’s voice he did not recognize said, “Oh, there you are.” Bonnie looked up, alarmed at first, unable, it seemed to him, to determine the exact source of the voice, then coming to. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was just coming back.” To Colin she said, “I’m sorry, break’s over.”
“Sure. Of course.”
She gathered what she had brought onto the tray, and with a tentative smile, still in the grip of the story, left.
Trevor sat for a moment, savoring the coincidence. And wondered if Wesley knew about Bonnie Leslie’s heritage. Surely, he must.
Then he opened the journal and went hunting for the place where he had left off. There it was. He backtracked a little, to fetch the narrative.
Then I simply had to ask again, risking—I knew—that he would batten down again, but I did not have a choice. The moment was right and it invited, almost demanded, the question.
For a moment Colin hung in the balance between surfacing and drowning. It was a long moment. Then he surfaced.
“I killed her, Dr. Ash.”
It was the first time, I realized, that he had addressed me by my name. And it was odd, I also realized, that I had never noticed before that he never had.
But what I said was, “Alinda?”
“But your father tells me it was pneumonia.”
“That was my weapon.”
“Cold, rain, sorrow, despair, treachery. Killers all.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I killed her as surely as if I had strangled or shot her.”
When I didn’t reply, he continued. “We promised each other as children. We always lived that promise, at least she did. I did mostly. And the first time I failed, she pulled me out. But the second time I failed, there was no one there to help me, for I had willed my destruction. She saw us, me and that woman, that…” and Colin shuddered a little, “that wonderful snake.” Even Colin seemed surprised at his choice of words.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He was looking at some image for quite a while, his eyes not seeing me, only the past. “She was a very attractive woman, on a strange and unfightable level. All she needed was my consent, my agreement.”
I said nothing.
“Not even agreement,” he corrected himself. “Anything short of flat refusal is read by her kind as consent, and anything short of flat refusal will not stand a chance, will be read by the gate as consent, will unlock it and let the beast in. I agreed. I let it in. I became it. And I slithered into the warmth with this enchantress and there I dissolved.”
Still I said nothing.
“She saw,” he said suddenly, looking right at me.
It took me by surprise, but I realized, “Alinda?” I said.
“Yes. I thought she would not come that day. It was raining. She didn’t much care for muddy roads and damp coaches. But she came anyway. She had set out before the bad weather started, I assume. She arrived, and she opened the door to my room, and she saw us, the enchantress and I, together in that bed. And, Dr. Ash, that is what killed her.”
I have learned to stay quiet when my patients talk, and so I remained.
“I have never seen a face so distraught,” Colin said. “So abandoned by life. So betrayed, so ruined. She was a very beautiful girl, Dr. Ash. She had a fine, clear, white face with dark, almost black hair, thick, and with a wonderful fragrance. With a soul to match. She was my better half, and that is much more than just words. If there is a God, He had planned it that way, for me and her to live our lives together. She knew this, implicitly. I knew it too, but not as well as did she. And in that one awful moment, when all blood had drained from her face and she was fighting for breath, when she knew it was all over, I saw what I had done. I had taken her life.”
I was nodding slowly that I understood.
“I had literally taken her life away from her. There was no life left for her to live. So she died.”
Then I said something exceedingly witless. I said, “But no one is going to blame you for her death.”
“Blame me?” It was a shout. “Have you heard nothing I’ve said?”
“I am sorry,” I said. “I did not mean that, not really. I know what you have told me. What others think is not important. I, I don’t know what, I tried to say the polite thing, the soothing thing, I guess.”
He looked, glared actually, at me for several long moments before deciding that I was sincere.
“I know,” he said, “and if there is a God, He knows. And if there is a Devil, then He, too, knows that I killed Alinda Leslie that day. I took back from her a life that I had promised, and I saw in her face the shock of suddenly grasping that. By my action I killed her.”
“Yes,” I said, “I see that you did.” And I meant it. He saw that I meant it, and he seemed satisfied.
“You said you are forgiven,” I said.
“I am forgiven.”
“Who has forgiven you?”
“The tree,” he answered.
I was about to retort with reason when the image of the branches slowly sinking to the ground to embrace him returned, and then I could find no reason within me to disbelieve him with.
We drove back in silence.
The S was very hard to trace. The pain notwithstanding, he had never felt comfortable with that letter, not even with his right hand, but here, with his left, in bark, in pain, almost insurmountable.
Still, he formed the snake, less and less faint in the bark, and when pain looked to overwhelm him and send him into the earth two things seemed to happen. He would again pull back and see himself trace the snake, and he would be aided by the tree who knew the path his finger must take. And then, for minutes, hours, he would—a little dumbfounded to be sure—watch himself trace, quite artfully, the snake, snake, snake, wondering why the tree was doing this and also wondering why it had stopped minding having this carved in him.
That is how the S formed, and it took an afternoon and an evening.
21 August 1843
Fergus Leslie is a brisk old man, probably fifteen years my senior. He came, along with his wife Seona—whom I had already met, of course—to see Colin today.
After hearing Colin’s story, I was very apprehensive about letting them see him, but in the end followed a deeper instinct. Colin had opened up with me, perhaps he had shed his canvas and ropes altogether, perhaps he would not hide himself from the world again.
How wrong I was.
I think Fergus Leslie and Colin Lawless understand each other perfectly. Colin knows that he killed Alinda Leslie, and Fergus Leslie knows that Colin Lawless killed his daughter. And the father, unlike the tree, has not forgiven her killer. I sensed that, and Colin must have sensed that ten times over, and so he battened down, and tightly.
I have the feeling that Colin could probably face anything in this world with a measure of equanimity, except Fergus Leslie. It is the one human being he has hurt the most, aside from Alinda herself, and of course her mother, but she has, by all she says and does indeed forgiven him—or she is not convinced, as is her husband, that a crime has been perpetrated.
I tried to have a word with Mr. Leslie before they returned to Bearcliff, but he was not in the mood for talking. “Only wanted to set my eyes on him,” he said.
The E took all morning and into the afternoon, the tree now, so it seemed to him, doing most of the tracing. All he had to do was to supply the finger, its blood, its muscle and bone.
He watched most of this from a distance, the pain filtered by air, while the tree kindly showed his ring finger exactly where to go.
And so with the L. Perhaps he slept after the E, perhaps not. Perhaps he had his fill of wild strawberries, perhaps not. Perhaps he made it back to the brook several times to fill his stomach with water, or perhaps that, too, had been dream. But he dreamed over and over that his little finger traced the L, L, L and then it, too, was done, and he was clean out of fingers.
22 August 1843
He cried today, most of the day. And strangely, two of his fingers began to bleed. Nurse Stanford suspects that Colin did something to his fingers to make them, but I am not so sure about that. I think Mr. Leslie re-opened a wound that had begun to heal, and I think that his hands, through some strange harmony, know of that inner wound, and bleed in sympathy. I know this is not very scientific, nor can I prove this, but I feel this is the case.
He did not want to go for our walk.
23 August 1843
Colin is in bed today, quite ill. His hands are still bleeding, if anything a little more. Nurse Stanford took it upon herself to tie his hands to his sides and to the bed so that he could not harm himself, and I guess that this was in fact a good thing, for at least it proved that he was not inflicting this damage upon himself, at least not physically.
24 August 1843
Doctor Talbot answered my request to come and look at the boy’s hands again and he arrived around noon. He couldn’t understand, he said, why they would “un-heal” as he put it. I said I did not know either, although by now I thought I knew.
He told Nurse Stanford to make sure the hands were washed daily with soap and warm water, and that they again were to be bandaged to keep the bleeding to a minimum.
Perhaps he then made it back to his shelter, perhaps not. Perhaps the ground swallowed him there, by the tree, and perhaps the tree bent down to cover him with its lower, leafy branches.
Perhaps the tree shouldered some of the pain, too, at least for a while, to let Colin sleep. Perhaps Colin slept without pain for the first time since the carving began, and perhaps it was this good night’s sleep that staved off infection and gangrene.
He awoke to a slight drizzle, covered by shelter, and wondered where he was, where the pain was. Then the sky withdrew the shelter and traded him the pain for it. The pain was so sudden, so overwhelming that he had to vomit; only there was nothing in his stomach to vomit, nothing to carry the pain away.
He managed to rise to his knees. He read what he had now written:
And knew he could not finish. Knew. He knew he could not ask of his decapitated forefinger to begin again, to draw the F, to offer its bone to the bark, and suffer again. He simply could not. He could not.
Alinda in a white dress, freezing in the rain, already dying. Alinda hugging death to her chest; death now a greater friend to her than Colin Lawless.
He read the ten letters again. Were they not enough?
Had he not atoned?
NO. Whether he screamed that aloud or not, he wasn’t sure. But that was the answer. He was not done. There was an F and a LAST to go, and his remnants would have to share this duty, would have to.
So, he pressed what was left of his right forefinger against the bark, pressed hard and traced a vertical line, the stem of the F, and promptly fainted again from the savage pain, fainted into so much heap on the leafy ground.
Which is how Lucy found him.
25 August 1843
I asked him today if he didn’t want to get up soon and come back for our walks. He looked at me, and smiled weakly, a no. His hands are still bleeding, and I am getting quite concerned.
26 August 1843
Doctor Talbot returned, at my urgent request to look again at his hands, which will not stop bleeding. Colin is getting weaker and weaker from loss of his blood if for no other reason. The doctor had no further suggestions. Keep them clean, bandaged, and—though not said in so many words—hope for the best.
27 August 1843
Nothing we do stems the bleeding. It is not a gushing, but it is a constant slow seeping, a darkening of each bandage as if somehow he has suddenly inherited hemophilia. When awake he often smiles.
His father arrived today, alarmed at my news. Colin looked at him and smiled several times. At one point he said, “Father,” but said nothing more. Mr. Lawless asked to stay in the hospital for the night to be near his son, which, of course, we arranged.
28 August 1843
I fear we may lose him. He is growing exceedingly pale, very weak, and the bleeding will not cease. He cannot keep his food down, not even weak soup. Bandages are changed almost hourly. His father remains by his side now, neither speaking.
29 August 1843
He spoke with me today, with some difficulty. Even working his tongue puts a strain on him. He wanted to know, “Am I dying?”
He had waited for his father to leave—the man was exhausted, had to rest, if only for a wink or two, as he put it.
“Yes,” I said, “your hands bleed. Unless we can find a way to stem the blood, you will die.”
He fell silent again, but when I rose to go, he said my name.
“Please stay,” he said.
After a while he said, “They hardly bled at all.”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, they should have bled much more, I knew that, but I willed them not to, I had to finish the letters.”
I nodded, and he saw that.
“And even so,” he added, “I needed help.”
“The tree?” I said.
“They’re doing their bleeding now,” he said after a silence.
“Are you willing them to?” I asked.
“Yes.” And that was the last thing Colin Lawless said.
The next many days go by beyond his reach. Though he tries, he cannot grasp them. He is carried, he is transported in a carriage. He recognizes the smell of hospital, then another, then the original one. A man who calls himself Ash says things to him on and off in-between sleep and food.
It feels to him like he is on a visit. He has been invited back to the world of the living, the world of smiles and food and warm beds, if only for a while.
Here he learns how to walk. He learns how to live without storms in his hands although the pain never goes away completely, a sky that never really clears. Clouds may move off, even beyond the horizon, but, he knows—for he can tell what lies beyond horizons now—he knows that they are still there. And the next day they are covering half the sky, or a third, or more. But it is bearable, and his hands are no longer burning.
The man who calls himself Dr. Ash returns him to the tree one day and he sees for himself what the tree had done. And he cries then, openly perhaps, perhaps not. The tree has forgiven him. And clearly, in its bark, for the world to see:
All washed and shiny. It was more than dream then, the promise the tree made him as they carried him away. You are forgiven, that is what the tree said, you are forgiven, or what he dreamed that the tree said, which wasn’t a dream after all.
And now, standing in front of the smiling oak—who does have a name by the way, only Colin cannot pronounce it, cannot even think it, but is nonetheless happy to make its acquaintance as he wonders why trees don’t introduce themselves more frequently but is told by his oak friend that that wouldn’t do at all, besides, Colin’s kind doesn’t know how to listen anyway, and yes, he could see that—there, standing in front of the smiling oak, he sees the last five letters, drawn by his friend, bloodless and fine.
Then Dr. Ash says it’s time to go back, and Colin says farewell to the tree, and Alinda’s father Fergus comes and wishes him dead for what he has done to his daughter and there is nothing he can do or think of to object to that, and instead agrees with all this heart.
It is time.
30 August 1843
Colin died at a little after three o’clock this morning. Mr. Lawless was there, as was I. Nurse Coventry called me at two saying Colin’s breathing was very shallow and erratic, not long for this world, she ventured; and she was right. I want to say that he smiled as he exhaled one last time, then did not inhale, but I could not tell for sure.
4 September 1843
I went to see the tree today, to let it know about Colin. Yes, I know that any man with a shilling’s worth of sense will want to have a long talk with me about reality, but that is why I went there. I felt that it ought to know—for I did not imagine those branches slowly falling to embrace him. The letters are still there, of course, all fifteen, and I am more and more convinced that Colin told the truth, the tree completed the inscription for him.
How do you talk to a tree? Not with words, I am sure, for trees—though I am sure now that they have a soul—have no ears. Still I managed, I believe, to tell it, using I don’t know what, intuition? I could have sworn that it answered, and was grateful for my coming. As I said, this is far removed from reason as we normally see it, but can you deny what happens if it truly happens?
I believe Colin died a peaceful man, and I believe the tree did forgive him, and so allowing him to die properly.
Trevor turned several more pages, but they were all blank. He had come to the end of the journal.
He closed the book and leaned back into the chair. He closed his eyes. He thought about the tree and the words. About the fifteen letters, about how he had nearly missed them, only to finally make them out, as if the tree had wanted him to see them.
Then he rose to find Dr. Wesley.
Alinda was waiting for him. “Why,” she wanted to know. “Why did you do it Colin?”
She was wearing her white dress and the summer was all around. They were walking in their meadow, or a meadow like it.
They were walking somewhere in the future, or somewhere in the past, or somewhere right now, it did not matter. What mattered was that she had waited for him. Concerned, and a little cross with him still, but mostly concerned.
“I honestly don’t know,” he said.
“That little reptile of a woman,” she said.
“I know,” said Colin.
“You found a tree,” she said then, turning to look right at him.
“Yes,” he answered. “I found a good tree.”
“If only you had shown the same strength with Mrs. Croft,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “Things would have turned out differently.”
“Still,” she said, and laughed, “you slew the beast.”
“Yes,” said Colin, seeing in Alinda’s face both admiration and love for him, feeling in his heart both admiration and love for her. “Yes, I did, didn’t I?”
Trevor found Dr. Leslie in his office, behind his, really, much too large a desk.
“Finished?” he said, looking up.
“Quite a tale.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know what is harder to believe, that he did what he did to his fingers, to his hands, or that the tree completed the task.”
“I have verified the first point.”
“What do you mean?”
“I had the body exhumed.”
“And, the bone on each of his fingers was worn down beyond the second joint. For some a little farther.”
“By carving those letters?”
“Everything points to it,” he said. “And there are the records at Pembury, where the boy was treated initially. It is clear about the damage to the hands. Though it says nothing about self-inflicted.”
“But it was.”
“I don’t doubt that at all.”
“I cannot imagine to what degree he must have willed it. He must have willed it with his entire being to stand up to such pain.”
“It is not unheard of,” began Dr. Wesley.
“Enduring pain. There is the account of the pilot performing an appendectomy on himself, while flying a plane.”
“I read about that.”
“There’s another account of the man who cut his arm off, trapped under a rock in the way outback, to save his life. It was either that or starve to death.”
“But,” said Trevor. “For days, weeks? How long did it take him to carve the letters?”
“He left the Woodrow Hotel in Greyfield on the 25th of April, from what I can ascertain, and he was found by Lucy the dog on the 8th of May.”
“My God,” said Trevor, that’s what, that’s two weeks.”
Trevor shook his head. “As I said. That’s as hard to believe as the tree completing the task.”
“Will you show me the tree?” asked Dr. Wesley.
“As I told you, I have looked for it,” the doctor said.
“It was sheer luck that I saw it,” said Trevor.
The doctor didn’t answer.
“Did you know that Bonnie Leslie is related to the Leslies in the journal?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Yes, I knew that.”
“And you have not shown her the journal?”
“I have been meaning to.”
“I told her about the tree,” said Trevor, meaning to convey to the doctor that there was now no real reason not to let her read it.
“Yes, I know,” he said. “She has a right.”
“Yes, she does,” said Trevor.
“Did you really mean to do it?” asked Colin.
Alinda smiled at that. Then, before answering, took a good look at the meadow, the sky, the trees, took a dance step or two, the sun her partner. “Actually, no,” she said. “No, I didn’t really mean to die.”
Colin looked at her for a long while, at her dress twirling around her as she spun away from him and in among the birches who seemed to welcome her. “And I was so sure.”
“I can’t deny it was a stupid thing to do.”
“Walking in the rain all the way back to Bearcliff that night. And through the woods.”
“So why did you?”
“I had just lost what I treasured most in life, Colin Lawless. I was not altogether at my brightest. I had to get away, and I could not stop moving, not even to get a carriage, or to find shelter, I had to keep moving away. That was my only thought.”
“So I did kill you?”
“Yes, no, maybe. Who knows?”
“But if I hadn’t?”
Colin shook his head. “So I did kill you.”
“Let me see your hands,” said Alinda.
Colin held out a fine set of healthy fingers. “None the worse for the wear,” she said and kissed him squarely on the mouth.
They arrived around four o’clock that afternoon.
The day had already begun to fade. It was Trevor’s idea to bring Bonnie Leslie, too, and Dr. Wesley, after some deliberation with himself, agreed. Trevor led the way into what once had been the little clearing, at the edge of it the old oak.
At first he could not even make it out himself, so blended with the bark were the letters, but then, knowing exactly where and how to look, he made them out again.
“Here,” he said, and placed his forefinger on the first L.
“I don’t see it,” said Bonnie.
Dr. Wesley came up closer, kneeled, even closer, “Ah,” he said. “I see it now.”
“I don’t see it,” said Bonnie again.
And this was where the tree took it upon itself to dispel all doubts. As they watched, as Bonnie especially, looked harder than she ever had, the letters began to grow more distinct. Trevor no longer had to look into the tree to make them out, they came out to meet him, and more and more distinct they grew into, finally, clear, shiny words, formed by sapwood young and moist. As if lit from within:
They did not say much on the way back. As a drizzly evening made inroads, lights sprung up in the windows along the road. The windshield wipers’ hush-hush seemed to set the mood.
Bonnie, sitting in the front seat beside Dr. Wesley, reached back and took Trevor’s hand. She squeezed it. Held it.
Squeezed it again. Thank you, she squeezed. Thank you so much.
“Want to do it again?” said Alinda.
“No,” said Colin, “I think I want to stay here for a while.”