This is the first part of Historia’s exclusive extract from the latest HWA short story collection, Victoriana. With a gothic undercurrent and a satisfying twist at the end, The Unwanted Suitor by Sophia Tobin is set on the East Kent coast in the mid-19th century.
Some tales are harder to tell than others. I tell you this one, my trusted friend, so that I may settle my mind, and smooth away those rough edges from my memory which are troubling me.
In my fortieth year, by the will of God, I applied to be rector of a seaside parish on the eastern coast of Kent. I had spent my working life in London, and now I craved wide skies and clean air. I manoeuvred for the position; I prayed for it; and I gained it. I went there in the year 1852, and I considered myself blessed.
My new parish had at its heart a picturesque harbour and jetty with a scattering of fishing boats. There was a rich history of folk tales and smuggling, and a handsome white lighthouse set on chalk cliffs a mile or so from the half-circle of the main bay.
Once a simple fishing village, it had become a watering place for refined holidaymakers. My parishioners were a delightful mix of plain speaking locals and cheerful visitors, the latter’s numbers waxing and waning with the season. I adored my new home. Even the gulls’ fractured cries were pleasing to me when they woke me early in the lead-grey mornings of that first winter. The last Rector had lived for 80 years, and I had every hope of doing the same.
There was one note of discontent in my mind: I keenly felt my single state. My footsteps echoed a little too sharply around the large, handsome rectory. The house needed a mistress.
A friend recommended me to Colonel Weston, a local notable who had settled in the town for the sake of his health. He had two daughters, and it was understood – that is, implied – that an introduction would be desirable on all sides.
I realise now, how crude that sounds; I blush at the thought of it. It was not quite that heavy-handed. I forget how the implication that I might marry one of his daughters had been established. I hope – I pray – that I acted with delicacy; that I did not assume too much. These things prey on the mind.
The Westons lived in a new house, high on the cliffs, with good views of the bay. As I mounted its imposing steps I saw a handsome brass telescope on a tripod in the front window of the upper floor.
The Colonel was welcoming; I took tea with him and his two daughters, Anna Elizabeth and Anna Maria, the Colonel explaining that Anna had been the name of his late wife. Anna Elizabeth, the eldest, was astonishingly beautiful. I was used to focusing on spiritual beauty rather than outward appearances, but I found her quite breathtaking. I confess that I can hardly remember anything she said, but I remember her face keenly.
Anna Maria had little of the refined beauty of her sister. But she was slim and pleasant-looking, and she moved gracefully around the room, stirring the fire, and pouring tea. She gave the impression of utter serenity.
After tea, the Colonel directed his daughters to carry out some trivial task together, thus leaving us alone.
“What do you think of her, then?” he said, as soon as the door had closed.
I paused, startled by the directness of the question.
“Oh come, come Mr Hetherdene,’ he said. ‘We have straight talking ways here. What do you think of my daughter?”
“Miss Anna Elizabeth is most charming,” I said, thinking that he meant the eldest.
He had taken a mouthful of tea, and almost spat it out with mirth. “Not her!” he said. “She is to marry next month, and go to India. She is my most precious jewel. But Anna Maria is a good girl too.”
“You mentioned your nieces often visit?” I admit I felt a little trapped at this point.
“Anna Maria is a good girl,” he said.
I married her. It was all swiftly and easily accomplished – so swiftly, and so easily that there were moments when I wondered how things had progressed so quickly.
The words “my wife” sounded strange to my ears, but I sought to make them familiar by using them often. Have you met my wife? May I direct you to my wife for your prayerbook?
Despite my efforts, I was not as thoughtful as I could have been. Anna Maria was a practical woman, and in response I adopted a straightforward tone which I could have softened. I even mentioned that I had preferred her sister to her, thinking my frankness a sign of openness and trust. She absorbed my words with a level gaze; but now, looking back, I wonder if I hurt her.
Still, she moved around her new home with the same serenity that I had observed at that first meeting, rearranging the rooms, as I had given her leave to do. She was utterly in command of herself; something I had never quite managed, despite my calling.
In the fourth week of our marriage, I noticed a new object on the mantelpiece of the drawing room: a bowl made of thick turquoise glass. Anna Maria had brought a few objects with her – the brass telescope, for example, took pride of place at her bedroom window. But there was something about this object which drew my particular attention. Whether it was the violent colour, or the thickness of the bowl, or the deep chip in one scalloped edge, I cannot tell you. Only that, that evening, it kept distracting me.
I had been telling my wife a tale a local parishioner had told me: a local smuggling legend; but I could not keep the thread of it. Exasperated, I took my newspaper up, but within a few moments my eye was drawn from my newspaper to the bowl. I hardly knew whether I hated it or loved it. One moment it was ugly, one moment beautiful.
“What is that thing, dear?” I said.
The smile that came over her face was so bright, that I saw her white, even teeth; her copper eyes darkened, and shone. I had never seen her smile so. It reminded me of what short acquaintance we were. In truth, it chilled me.
“It came from Jack,” she said.
“And who is Jack?” I said, trying to sound jovial.
She lowered her eyes to a piece of sewing in her lap. “Jack Merritt. Surely you have heard of him? He is a great explorer. He spent a summer with us, a year or more ago. My father thought he would be a suitor for Anna Elizabeth.”
“And was he?” I was surprised at the sharpness of my voice. My newspaper had found its way onto the table. Anna Maria carefully moved the candle away from it.
“No,” she said. “But it was a happy summer. We all went to a picnic on the Goodwin Sands. You’ve heard of them?”
“The ship-swallower? Of course.” The shifting Sands were the greatest hazard to shipping off our coast; they had claimed hundreds of lives.
“You can visit them at certain times, if you have someone with the right knowledge in your party.”
I shuddered. “It is like picnicking in a graveyard.”
She saw my disapproval; but she pressed on. “Jack found the glass bowl there. He saw a glint in the sand, and dug it up. It must have been cargo from a vessel wrecked there. We were all rather excited.”
I looked at the bowl, sitting on the mantelpiece. I decided I hated it.
“And how does it come to be in your possession?” I asked.
Her voice softened. “Jack gave it to me.”
‘Was your elder sister not there?’
‘Yes, she was there. But as I said to you just then, he did not wish to be her suitor.’
We sat, silently, listening to the fire crackling in the grate. Then I rose. “It is rather a horrible thing,” I said, trying to be cheerful, but sounding severe. “I don’t want it down here.”
“Then where will it live?”
“Anywhere,” I was impatient. “But not here.”
I went to bed early that night, overcome by a sudden tiredness. I could only think that the conversation must have taken its toll on me. I am not always aware of the full scope of my emotions until exhaustion halts me. Like all civilised people, my wife and I slept apart, our rooms linked by a door. I did not stay awake long enough to hear Anna Maria come to bed. I put my candle out, and fell asleep instantly upon laying down.
I woke in the depths of the night, gripped by terror. When I opened my eyes, I heard a hoarse, ragged cry, and only realised after a moment that it was coming from me. My wife stood over me, her hair hanging loose, her candle on my bedside table. She was saying my name, her lips moving soundlessly before me until I fully gained consciousness and heard her voice.
I shook her hands from my shoulders, willing myself to gain control. “A dream is all,” I said, harshness in my voice. “And no wonder. The air is stifling in here.” The truth was I did not know what had woken me, in such terror.
“I’ll open the window,” she said, turning with her usual swiftness.
I heard it then: hoofbeats on the road, carrying even through the sound of the wind outside; the smuggling tale told me by my parishioner tugged at my heart, pounding in my chest..
“Don’t go near the window!” I cried. “Do you not hear them outside?”
She stood there, watching me. “I hear the servants upstairs,” she said. “You have woken them.”
She came to me, and put her arm around me, and persuaded me to enter her own room. Her bed was cool and fresh, and I fell asleep again, her beside me.
When I woke the next morning, the first thing I saw was the turquoise bowl, set on her dressing table. I felt a fall in my chest. A sudden caving, exactly akin to the fear that had woken me. “You wished me to move it from the drawing room,” she said, when I questioned her.
“Well, remove it from here,” I said. Giving her no direction as to where she should put it. What I wanted to say, but somehow could not, was that I wanted her to destroy it.
In many ways, Anna Maria was a model wife. She was excellent at managing the servants. She visited my parishioners assiduously, and prayed with them sweetly, remembering the names of their children and elders. She eased my mind with good sense when I returned from work, harried by the demands of my duties. But there was still a distance between us. I never saw her stand at the telescope, but she did so, I knew that.
“Missus says you can see the Goodwin Sands today, like a proper island,” my housekeeper informed me cheerily, one morning, and I cut my egg and toast savagely, wondering why it was that my wife should waste her time staring at the sea. But I reminded myself to be grateful for God’s mercies, which included the disappearance of the turquoise bowl.
My nights were troubled. I believe that, perhaps, despite the serenity of our domestic life, we were not happy. Lying in my bed I would be suddenly possessed with an extreme restlessness, so severe that it was almost unbearable. My head and chest were filled with tension, and my limbs with a sensation like itching. I could do nothing but rise from my bed and stand on my feet, and walk backwards and forwards, trying to stamp down the sensation.
On those nights, Anna Maria must have heard me, but she did not come to me. On waking, I would think that I saw the bowl, sitting on my chest of drawers. But it was never really there, on second glance.
When the sun began to shine and the gales had died down, I unlocked the door to the small conservatory overlooking the garden. I expected to find it dusty, and to ask Anna Maria to arrange for the servants to tidy and sweep it, so that we might enjoy it during the summer. But it was already clean, and showed signs of occupation: some chairs, and plants.
And suddenly, there it was: the turquoise bowl. Placed on the window ledge, the same violent colour in the sunlight, squat and malevolent. Wretched superstition rose in me: morbid, pagan fear. I hated that my faith provided no armour against such ridiculous feelings. In that single, fraught, moment, it seemed to me that there was only one thing to be done.
Sophia Tobin grew up in Kent. She has written four novels. A Map of the Damage, her fourth book, was published in paperback on 30 April, 2020.
Victoriana is on offer at 99p (ebook version) until Friday, 11 September, 2020. Read more about this compilation of 10 short stories set in the 19th century. Each story is accompanied by an interview with the author.
Portrait of a Woman in a Black Dress by Gustav Carl Ludwig Richter: via Wikimedia
Victorian Family at the Seaside by Charles Wynne Nicholls: © Wolverhampton Art Gallery via ART UK
Murano glass bowl: via Wikimedia
Goodwin Sands, cliffs by Eukalyptus: via Pixabay
Coast Scene with Fisherfolk by Philip Hutchins Rogers: © Royal Cornwall Museum via ART UK
North Foreland Lighthouse by George Jackson: via Wikimedia