This is the second and final part of Historia’s serialisation of Sophia Tobin’s The Unwanted Suitor, taken from Victoriana, the HWA collection of ten short stories set in the 19th century, each one accompanied by an interview with the author.
In the first part, the narrator, a vicar living on the East Anglia coast, marries a woman he hardly knows. Although he is brusque towards her, she appears serene and the couple seem to get on well enough – until he begins to fear that a turquoise glass bowl given to her by the explorer Jack Merritt has some kind of malign power. One night, he reaches breaking point…
I went to the bowl, and threw it to the ground, uttering a prayer under my breath as I did so. But as it hit the flagstones, it did not break. A small chip of glass flew off the edge, and that was all. Another deep chip to scar it. The noise brought a servant, who picked it up and took it away as I fled to my study.
My wife had reddened eyes at supper that evening. I left her, and went to my study to make a fair copy of my sermon for the following day. The next morning, when I went to collect my sermon, it was nowhere to be found. How we searched, but with no success.
I hated to be unprepared, and felt sick with nerves as I walked up the steps to the pulpit. I muddled through, and did not have the stomach to make more than a peremptory greeting to my parishioners as they left.
I returned to the empty Rectory a little ahead of my wife, poured myself a glass of sherry from the decanter in the drawing room, and threw myself into an armchair.
The turquoise bowl was sitting on the mantelpiece, in its original position. Beneath it was a piece of folded paper. I put my glass onto the table, and went to it. The bowl was obscenely heavy; the paper soft in my hands, slightly damp, as though from sea-spray. I was trembling as I unfolded it, and stared at my sermon, the black ink running down the white page. The front door banged shut, and Anna Maria appeared, untying her bonnet ribbon.
“I have found it,” I said. “My sermon.”
She read the anger on my face. “But that is good, surely?” she said. “Where was it?”
I pointed at the bowl.
She seemed nonplussed. “How did that get there? But what is wrong, Arthur? You don’t look well.”
The anger I felt was astonishing. Keeping it within me took every nerve, every sinew. It had a terrible power, like the turning tide, so many slipstreams hidden beneath the surface.
“I suggest that you put it there, to hide it from me,” I said finally. I had tried to keep the venom out of my voice, but it must have been there. Her shoulders straightened, very slightly.
“I did not,” she said.
“Prove it,” I said.
“No. You prove otherwise.”
“It is a hideous thing. You have brought a cursed object into our house. What has that bowl seen? A shipwrecked thing? It brings anguish with it. It brings death.”
She stared into my eyes. “Such rank superstition, Arthur. How can you give voice to it, when you have just been in God’s house?”
The silence between us was terrible. She turned away, placed her bonnet on the table.
“Arthur,” she said, “You hate me, don’t you?”
I looked at her. The element of truth in her words drained all of the anger from me.
“You need not pretend so flamboyantly that you adore me, when it is clear – at least to me – that you do not.”
She was right. I had taken to complimenting her extravagantly to strangers and parishioners, to speaking of her as beautiful and wondrous, when I hardly believed it.
“I wish our marriage to be a pattern of goodness,” I said eventually. “A true, Christian example.”
“That will take time,” she said. “After all, we are strangers.” She looked out of the window. “I think that is why there is no child yet.”
Oh the pain of it. For her to bring it out, so quietly, into that warm sunlit room. By this time, we had been married a year, and there was no child. No sign of a child. No hope of one.
We did not speak for the rest of the day. But that night, she came to my room, barefoot and in her nightdress, with tears streaming down her face. I will admit that her discomfort both surprised and gratified me, and I realised suddenly how grating I had found her sustained serenity: she seemed as false as a hothouse flower, forced by the heat of its circumstances into unnatural bloom. Only this agitation was real.
She produced the bowl; put it on the bed in front of me. I shrank from it.
“I know you tried to destroy it,” she said. “But you cannot.”
“It won’t break. It has to be returned to the Goodwin Sands. I remember being told such a thing when I was given it.”
“And you call me superstitious?”
“Arthur, you tried to shatter it, did you not? And you could not. Do you not think I have tried to break it?”
“But you said it reminded you, of that summer.”
Her face softened. “Yes. But those days are gone. I am a wife now. I wish to be a mother.” She paused, looked away, and then back at me. “There is a mariner who will help us. James Blake. He is on the jetty, most days. He is the one who took us out there, for the picnic.”
She took me to meet Blake the next day. He sat quietly on the jetty, smoking his pipe, and listened to what we had to say. But there was something about him I did not like: his muscular solidity, and the slight smile he wore at the sight of us.
“I must go to the Sands with the bowl,” said my wife. “I have spoken with local people. It is well known. I must do it.”
“Surely not,” I said.
“Mrs Hetherdene is right,” interjected Blake, taking a puff of his pipe. “The person who has been given the gift must take it back, or you will never rest.”
I wanted to groan with the weight of my anguish. “I wish you had never gone there. Why did you accept the gift from that wretched Jack fellow?”
“Please, Arthur,” she murmured. “Let me put things right. Blake will take care of me; he has been my father’s servant in the past. Or you could come with me.”
But I was afraid of the sea. She knew that. So I looked at the tough, experienced face of the mariner, agreed, and let her go.
I went back to the Rectory and tried to read, to prepare for my next sermon, but I could not settle. I rang for tea, but had no appetite for it. I went to her room. It smelt of her scent. I half expected to see the cursed bowl there, having made its way back through some terrible power. It was not there.
I went to her telescope. It had its own tricks; it took me some time to work it. But eventually, to my surprise, I managed to focus. After a moment or two, I saw the boat coming back, with Blake and my wife on board. I saw it come close to the beach in the tiny harbour; saw him leap out into the shallows.
Anna Maria rose to her feet. He put his hands to her waist. He lifted her, and carried her in his arms to the shore.
I was hardly breathing as I watched them. Two sunlit figures, young and strong as they came out of the sparkling sea. I felt weak, then; a fussy clergyman, drained of energy and beset with anxieties.
I had barely recovered when she came in. For the first time, I looked at her face and I thought: she is beautiful. I told her what I had seen, and she laughed. “They call it landing the fare,” she said. “Blake did it to save my dress. No one is scandalised. Are you?”
I shook my head, numbly. There was nothing, in essence, wrong in what I had seen. But as I looked around our drawing room, I felt that the world had tilted, somehow. All of the things I offered her seemed stale, and secondhand. But she came to me, and knelt beside me. She took my hands. She smelt of the sea air: fresh, and clean.
“The bowl is gone, dear Arthur,” she said. “I buried it in the sand. There is nothing to fear.”
“I do fear,” I said. “I fear that I do not deserve you.” And I saw her face soften, and open to me, as hitherto it never had.
Anna Maria never spoke of Jack Merritt again, or of the picnic on the Goodwin Sands. Shortly afterwards, we discovered that she was with child, and it was as though a great weight had been lifted from both of us.
Our duty done, we could become the Christian family I had always wanted us to be. My nightmares stopped, as did my strange restlessness, and nothing went amiss. A slight distance remained between us, but the way in which she poured love into our firstborn child reassured me. We have not been blessed with more children, but our son has brought us much joy.
Imagine my surprise when visiting London one day, some five years later, I was introduced to a Mr Jack Merritt, the famed explorer. He had in fact done nothing in particular grand, but had failed in most of his enterprises. I took leave to introduce myself, and on mentioning my connection to the Colonel and his daughters, Mr Merritt was most enthusiastic and kind, and wished me joy.
I offered him lunch, and over it listened to many tedious tales of his adventures, before I could press him on his memories of my wife. I mentioned the picnic, and he laughed and said he remembered it well, but that was not enough for me.
“And what of the bowl you gave my wife?” I said. “Do you remember that? It caused us some trouble, I don’t mind saying.”
He swallowed the mouthful of wine he had been drinking and shook his head. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, old chap,” he said. “You must be mistaken.”
I described all that my wife had said of the day. He shook his head, looked towards the waiter, frowned.
“She might have got the bowl from the man who took us,” he said. “They were good value, those old mariners. Tough customers, but I do remember one was good with the ladies. Lots of tales of the place, and he had a treasure or two.
“If anyone gave it to Mrs Hetherdene, it would have been him. In fact, if I remember properly, I think he might have been rather sweet on her. Not the done thing of course; even if she had liked him, he was way below her. It would have been like marrying one of the servants. Ugly of him to make his emotions so clear. Her sister was the beauty, of course. Died in India; very sad.”
I sat very still, and felt very much as I had on that day when I had seen my wife in Blake’s arms, being carried from the sea.
“Do you remember his name?” I said. “The mariner. Was it Blake?”
But Jack Merritt wasn’t the kind of man who remembered names. He only shrugged. “I say, old chap,” he said. “Shall we ask for the bill? It’s about time we settled up, I think.”
I settled up, that day.
I settle up still now, every day, and try to make things right. I dare not ask Anna Maria for the truth. I do not want to know it. I know only that I will always remember that day, when she came in from the sea, and I saw her face properly for the first time.
For, if something is broken, as our marriage was, it can always be fixed; and there is no use in dismantling happiness. The broken ends of things may be smoothed by time, and prayer; cursed things may be buried in the sand. Let the seas wash over them, until it is as though the pain was never there.
I travelled to the seaside; I married a beautiful woman; I serve God and my family well. Let me be grateful for that.
Victoriana is on offer at 99p (ebook version) until Friday, 11 September, 2020. Read more about this compilation of ten short stories by ten different writers, set in the 19th century. Each story is accompanied by an interview with its author.
The Old Vicarage, near Bapchild, Kent by pam fray: via geograph
The Reverend James Bulwer by Frederick Sandys: via Wikimedia
Fishing Boat at Sea by William Henry Borrow: © Hastings Fishermen’s Museum via ART UK
A Walk on the Beach by Augustus Leopold Egg: © Manchester Art Gallery via ART UK
Two men dining by Prawny: via pixabay