Letter 34 - A Walk in the Park

Miss Adeline Westley
23 rue Saint Paul
Paris

1 April 1903

Dearest Addie,

I am sorry for your suffering, darling, but know that Mr. Steichen has only proven himself less worthy of you than I had once believed. If you have been made a fool by the influence of absinthe, I am double the fool due to my own naïveté. I cannot express the heaviness of my heart. It is quite broken, Addie. Mum says I shall recover, and learn to love again--but I shan't. I am ruined for romance. There will be no wedding, no little children with Stuart's green eyes, no future which I consider at all worthy of description. And although there is an irritating, logical voice which begs me to realize that my mood is highly melodramatic and ridiculous, I refuse to give it heed. I feel as if the very core of my existence, and all that I knew to be true with my whole heart, has been torn from me--and without that centre I am adrift, having nothing to anchor me to my former existence. I am utterly wretched, but I must commit it to paper. I want you to know, and I want to convince myself, that what I have done is right.

The chain of events which has left me in this state of despair began when I received a summons to New Scotland Yard. I knew it must be in regards to my former visit there, and assumed that the coroner involved must require further information about Mr. Collins. It would not be a pleasant errand, I reflected, but the weather was unusually fine for the season--cold but clear--and I determined to enjoy the outing. I well remember the short but pleasant walk to Lancaster Gate, the last time I can recall being unreservedly happy. Upon arrival I gave my name at the desk, and was only required to wait a few moments before a young man I recognized appeared and offered me his arm. "Ah, yes--Miss Bristow. This way, please." It was the same cadet who had escorted me to the mortuary when last I was at Scotland Yard. He very courteously guided me to a small office down the hall from the reception area and bade me sit, whereupon I fixed him with a gaze that must surely have displayed my curiosity at his invitation.

"It is quite natural that you should wonder at my invitation," he began, echoing my thoughts," and I must allow that in most cases, I would have thought it sufficient to send correspondence." He paused, and seemed to consider his next words carefully. "I ... had thought it kindness to inform you that Joseph Collins II of Yorkshire is indeed deceased, but that he was not the man whom you identified on 14 February of this year. Upon further inquiry, our sources have verified that Joseph Collins II was killed six months ago in a motor-car accident in France. His remains were duly returned to his kin in Yorkshire, and his body is interred there with those other deceased members of his family." Having said all this, he looked me over with a polite solicitousness, as if to ascertain my state of mind at this revelation. When I did not speak, as I was, indeed, quite without the power just then, he continued, "As you were a friend, and are a lady, I felt it proper for you to be aware of the true circumstances of his death, so as not to despoil his character."

I am sure I was discourteous, Addie, for my mind had been set to racing at this extraordinary news. All my thoughts turned toward Stuart, and the question of how this misunderstanding could have come about. So absorbed was I in this line of thinking, that it was necessary for the cadet to speak my name more than once, I suspect, before I became aware of it and found my tongue. I made all the courtesies the situation required, I hope, and asked to be shown out, that I might spend some time alone. The cadet, who it transpired was called James Murphy, showed me every kindness, and perhaps more concern than I deserved. He walked me to the street, apologizing for upsetting me all the way, and seemed almost to regret having summoned me to Scotland Yard at all. I was quite keen to be rid of him, Addie, for his presence required me to divide my attentions--attentions which I desired to put fully to use in tumbling to the bottom of this most puzzling circumstance. Mr. Murphy, however, seemed equally as keen to assure himself that he had not caused me undue distress, so I was obliged to convince him of it. At last I was free, Addie--Mr. Murphy had, at my vehement request, returned to his duties, and I was alone on Victoria Enbankment. I began to walk, not particularly mindful of my direction, and to think fiercely. Joseph Collins was six months dead, so he could not have been the man who accosted Stuart at Portobello Market. Perhaps he only looked a great deal like the real Joseph Collins--"a bit of a ringer," as Stuart had said ... only that would not explain why the man had called himself Collins, or how he was acquainted with Stuart if not from time spent together at Oxford. Had this man, for reasons best known to himself, succeeded in deceiving Stuart? Was it all some sort of jest? Perhaps Joseph Collins had a twin, an unkind twin, who wished to mock Stuart in some way? Was it Joseph Collins' brother who had perished so ignominiously on Wapping Wall? No, that did not suit, either. Whatever investigations the police had undertaken, if Joseph Collins had a twin, and if that twin had been unaccounted for at the time, surely they would have known him for the dead man. The only other conclusion became clear to me at once, and it was not a pleasant one. Perhaps Stuart was not the object of this jest ... perhaps I was the one to have been fooled. If the man was not Collins, and if Stuart knew this, what other reason would the two of them have had to engage in the charade? And yet, Stuart had seemed so genuinely upset by the encounter--it seemed folly to think he had a hand in something that had caused him such real pain. Unless ... unless the pain was not real. Was it possible, could it be that Stuart had engineered the entire scene for my benefit--the unkindness and the repentance both? And to what end? But if he had, Addie, if he had ... the fraudulent Mr. Collins was not the only unlucky one for having been murdered. Stuart was nearly as unfortunate, as the death of his erstwhile colleague had, in a roundabout manner, alerted me to the duplicity of Stuart's own actions. No wonder he had not wished to identify the man! He knew full well that the man had not been Collins, and identifying him otherwise would likely have resulted in my coming to the very same conclusions I was now constrained to accept: that Stuart had not been honest with me, that he had some mysterious agenda which required that I be deceived, and my emotions toyed with. I was quite incensed, Addie. My anger and shame were so acute, in fact, that I did not notice my own brother approaching me until he had blocked my path.

"What are you doing here, Maisie? If you've come to visit, I haven't time for it today. You should have made an appointment. At any rate, hadn't you ought to be at home on such a cold day?"

It took a moment for the meaning of his words to penetrate my outraged mood. "Yes, of course, Peter--you live round here, don't you?" Amusement immediately replaced Peter's brisk manner, and his mouth quirked into a familiar expression of brotherly indulgence. "Indeed, Maisie. But may I assume you did not come this long way merely to confirm that fact?" I did not want to talk to Peter, Addie, I did not want to talk to any person at that moment, nor did I wish to admit my doubts about Stuart to Peter, who had been striving to discredit his friend since the announcement of our engagement, and who might very well be correct in all his unwelcome criticisms. I was angry with Stuart, so angry I felt light-headed, and yet I did not wish to hear him abused further at that moment. I had a great suspicion that I would not be able to endure it. But here was Peter, and I could hardly ignore him. Indeed, I had not seen him at all for some time. "No, I came ... I was on an errand for Mum." Peter's amusement seemed to double as he said, "Here?" he indicated the Thames with a sweeping motion of his arm, "I suppose she engaged you to angle up a few trout for supper? You needn't be self-conscious, Maisie, I will admit that I have missed seeing you, as well." Here was warmth which I had not received from Peter in some time. It was disarming, indeed, Addie, to find him so suddenly transformed into the Peter of old. Torn as I was, I found myself inclined to stay with Peter a while, and bask in this unexpected ray of affection and good humor. "You ... you are busy, then?" I ventured. He glanced behind him, opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again and offered me his arm. "Let us walk," he said.

And so nearly half an hour was passed most pleasantly, as we walked along the Thames and amused ourselves by guessing the errands of the various passersby. Peter was kind enough to ask after Stuart, but this only served to remind me of my recent conclusions concerning him. "I have another question for you, Peter, about Joseph Collins." "Do you, indeed?" returned Peter, "And what is it that you crave to know today?" "Well," I began, "Ever since Stuart mentioned him to me, I have been wondering if he had ginger hair. I knew three Collins girls at Cheltenham, all of them ginger." It was good to hear Peter laugh without bitterness. "Maisie, I had almost forgotten what a source of amusement you are. But to answer your question--no, Collins was quite as dark as Stuart. The two of them were very alike in appearance, in fact. I wonder at your questions, Maisie. Has Stuart spoken of Collins often?" It was a struggle to remain in such a state of mind as to be able to answer Peter's question naturally, for it seemed to me that I had been made quite a fool. The man I had met at the Market had not looked a thing like Stuart, excepting perhaps in similarity of height, and certainly could not be called dark of hair. I must have maintained a passable composure, however, as Peter did not seem to think anything amiss when I answered, "No, not often. It's only, I had thought--as he and Stuart were such great chums at school--perhaps it would be wise to invite him to the ... the wedding." It truly grieved me to speak of it, Addie, for I very much felt that there would be no such wedding. My own feelings were somewhat eclipsed, however, by the cloud that stole across Peter's countenance at my words. He ceased to walk, and turned to look at me, seeming to consider my mood, then began gently, "Did Stuart never tell you, Maisie, that Collins was killed some months ago?" This news was not completely unexpected, Addie, for I did not really doubt the thoroughness of the Metropolitan Police, and yet it hurt all the same, to have this information corroborated. When I did not immediately reply, Peter continued, "Perhaps not. It was a great blow to Stuart, I know, for I conveyed the news to him myself. I suppose he had rather not speak of it." And then I quite lost my ability to remain on my feet, for here was proof--proof of the lie, and of Stuart's disingenuousness. Stuart had known that his friend was dead long before we supposedly met him at Portobello Market, there was no further excuse to be made, and no amount of explanation could sufficiently account for his deceit. Thankfully, Peter took my swoon as a reaction to the news of Collins' unfortunate demise at such a young age, and helped me to a low stone wall to sit for a moment and regain my composure. The pleasure of my walk with Peter was ended, but I attempted, as well as I could in my present state, to express to my brother my happiness at the change in him, and my enjoyment of the time spent together which reminded me so much of our former closeness and camaraderie. This, it became apparent, was the wrong thing to have said. Peter seemed to recall himself instantly, and was much cooler as he walked me to Westminster Bridge and said his farewells. I waited long enough to ensure Peter would be out of sight, then exited the station and began the walk home through the parks.

Whether it was fortune or curse, I am sure I do not know, but who do you think I met halfway across Green Park? It was Stuart himself, out riding with his father, and it was more than I could bear. To see him, and to know of his betrayal--to be in the presence of Sir John and so many cheerful strangers who were about their leisure in the park, enjoying the rare sunshine--I could not speak to Stuart as I wished, nor could I pretend all was well. I thought I might die from the disparity between my wild desire to speak my mind and my more cautious inclination to stay on the side of propriety. He did not see me at first, and my eyes filled with angry tears as I watched him from some little distance. I had stopped short in the middle of the path, and was scrubbing the moisture from my eyes rather violently, when his eyes fell on me. The look of genuine delight on his face when he discerned me, Addie, caused me more pain than had the shock of coming upon him so suddenly. He had no right to look so overjoyed at my appearance! Stuart spoke a few words to his father, who nodded and continued on across the park, then urged his own fine Morgan gelding toward me. At least I would be spared from having this interview witnessed by Sir John, but it was a cold comfort. Stuart dismounted immediately upon reaching my side, transferred his reins to his left hand, and took my hand in his right. He peered down into my face with that same look of utter delight for the briefest of moments before his brow creased with concern. "What is it, Maisie? What's happened?" I could not meet his gaze, Addie. I kept my eyes on the path and merely asked, "Shall we walk?" Stuart acquiesced, and I took the arm he offered with a mixture of reluctance and gratitude. It was utterly disgusting how glad I was to feel the warmth of him at my side, the strength of his supporting arm--and unbearably bittersweet, knowing it would be the last time. I could not keep the tears from coming, and Stuart offered silent glances and gestures of consolation when it became apparent to him that I did not wish to speak. At length this very sincerity of kindness on Stuart's part was more than I could endure. After all, hadn't he put on remorse the day he had deceived me? Hadn't his feigned sincerity fooled me rather too thoroughly? As we approached Grosvenor Crescent, I stopped short and told Stuart he would please me best by going home, I would rather walk the rest of the way to the mews unaccompanied. Had I not been in such exquisite pain myself, and gripped by a sudden spark of righteous anger, I might have experienced more regret at the injury these words seemed to inflict on Stuart. "Come home with me, Maisie, Mrs. White will get you tea, you musn't be alone in this state--I entreat you!" I wrenched my arm away from his and finally raised my face to meet his eyes. "Do not entreat me, Mr. Hill. You have used me, and I am done with you." I was surprised at the hardness of my own voice, which seemed to ring in the clear air like a hollow bell. My face was still wet with tears, but they had ceased flowing. Addie, my heart felt as cold as my voice, and I turned my back on Stuart and strode away toward Hyde Park. I did not look back, but I could not stop my ears, and I listened for the gelding's hooves moving on the path, or the jingle of his harnesses, in vain.

I am sure I shall be called upon to speak to Stuart soon, and I dread the prospect. I feel that I shall never be cheerful again. Please do not delay in writing.

Sincerely,

Maitland Bristow

14 Bathurst Mews
London


3 comments:

sunrabbit said...

This is from Thora Sutton (emailed to me):
Zowie!!! I am finally all caught up in the story! Wow!!! I love it! I love it! How do you do it? Do you already know what is going to happen? I read the "Christmas Past" post and I could hardly believe that Maisie was right about Addie's real father... well, maybe! So do you have an outline that you are writing from-- do both of you work together or do you just come up with your own things independently? This SO has to be published! I love it-- but I said that already! I can't wait for the next letter-- hurry!

Deb said...

This is the first of these letters I've read -- WOW! Are they real? I have some catching up to do!

Michelle Walker said...

Deb,

So glad you started reading Letters! The Letters are fictional--but painstakingly historically accurate. We would love to hear what you think as you catch up.