CHAPTER EIGHTY-NINE: THE INVISIBLE GAVEL

 

Author’s Note:

 

We are jumping ahead in time to after George’s death.  This chapter, as told by Justine, contains another of the ‘plot pillars’ I will have to work around during the rewrite and edits.

 

 

TWO YEARS LATER

 

“The nature of my visit is twofold,” Harold said as he sat down at the kitchen table, pulling out a file from his briefcase and donning his spectacles.  “I have some very unfortunate news indeed, but as a consequence of that, some extremely good news – for you at least.”

“Truly, Harold?”

I was perplexed.

Other than the monumental feat of mothering Harland around my deep, dark guilt over his father’s death, I had nothing of importance going on; there was nothing in my life which would warrant any news, whether it be good or bad.  Whilst my inner life was in turmoil, my outer life was bland.

I must’ve looked confused, for Harold, peering at me over the rims of his glasses, said, “Justine, has there ever been a time between us when, in and amongst the trouble, I haven’t offered you something of great benefit?  Ownership of Foxglove after Everett’s death?  Refuge at St. Anne’s in the terrible events surrounding the tragedy with Sidney?  And then –” He paused, deliberating whether he should carry on.  “Our memory for the future.  And I say that in the hope that what occurred between us that night was memorable in the best of ways.”  He paused again, deliberating further, eventually saying, “It was for me.”

What was it about Harold?

He had this way of making me forget the angst through which he came to give me a way out.  When I was with him, surrounded by the very things that pained me, I forgot about my problems.  But then again, as Harold would say, perhaps it wasn’t a matter of forgetting one’s dilemmas, but rather a matter of remembering oneself amidst the strife.  And that was happening in that moment.  Besieged with guilt, regret, remorse for my abominable behaviour, I was still – remarkably – able to recall the good.

“It was for me also,” I said, but gravely, perhaps because, deep down, I sensed that life had given us one night and we’d already spent it, used up our quota for a lifetime.

Harold looked pleased, but in a serious way.  Did he, like I, intuit that our time had passed, never to return?

“With regards to the matter at hand,” he said, hesitating as if he wished to continue discussing our memory,  but deciding against it for the time being, “I received a letter from the United States from Mr. Theodore Cooper, a lawyer representing Mrs. Josephine Thorne.”

“Mrs. Josephine Thorne?”  I didn’t recognise the name.

“Yes,” Harold replied. “Mrs. Josephine Thorne is John Winterbourne’s daughter and John was living with her, her husband, a Dr. Nathanial Thorne, and his grandchildren before he –”

“No,” I interrupted.  “No, Harold.  Don’t tell me that John died.  No –”

Instantly, I saw John standing with me in the heath. ‘This is what grief feels like,’ he was gusting. ‘It comes in waves, catches us off guard.  I have ghosts too, lass. My Annie.  My Anthony.  My Sarah.  And while you have the heath, I have the sea.  Just like you hear the wind rushing through the gorse, I hear the waves crashing on the shore.  And, let me tell you something, it was Gregory who gave me that.’

“I wish I didn’t have to tell you this,” Harold continued, “because I know how much you adored him.  And I know how much he worshipped you, something that he’s made evident with –”

“With what?” I interrupted again.

“With the fact that he has left you St. Anne’s in his last will and testament,” Harold replied.

“St. Anne’s?  In Portsmouth?”  I was stunned – confused.  “That can’t be right, Harold.  Why would he do such a thing?  Why wouldn’t he leave the house to his daughter and his grandchildren?”

“On the practical side,” Harold began, “because his daughter and her family have no interest in leaving the United States to come to England.  They are extremely well-to-do and have no need for any money that would come from the sale of the house.  According to Mrs. Thorne’s lawyer, Mr. Cooper, Mr. Winterbourne had the full blessing of his family to bequeath St. Anne’s to you. Mrs. Thorne regarded the  property as an inconvenience she had no intention of managing from Boston, even through me.  To quote her, ‘St. Anne’s is a headache I can do without.’  So, that, Justine, is the practical side.”

“And the other side?”

“The other side – well – that perhaps is the more poignant side, the reason holding the practical side up.  That’s the sentimental side.  For in the detailed notes Mr. Winterbourne left with his will, he explained that you and he were kindred spirits, that you shared an unexplainable bond.  He impressed that when it comes to bequeathing, we bequeath many things, not just heirlooms and buildings. We leave behind our stories and our settings for others to build upon.”

As Harold spoke, I could feel the tears welling.  I could hear John in Harold’s voice, so much so, he was standing behind Harold with his hands clamped on the back of the chair, stooping slightly as, blurring in my vision, he said, “It stings a bit, lass, but Josie, bless her heart, isn’t the slightest bit interested in my English story.  Can’t say I blame her, for my life in England with Sarah, Annie and Anthony was what kept me from Evelyn, her mother.  But as much as I love Boston and as much as I’ve relished the last few chapters of my life, I’m still an old English boy born and bred. England – Portsmouth – well, lass – they’re the bulk of my saga, aren’t they?  And God knows what you’re going to do with them when I’m gone but, knowing you, lass, the way you brandish that pen of yours, you’ll do something with them; they won’t get lost.  You’ll slip them into one of your stories somewhere, even if just for a page or two, and keep them safe for the next generation.  But, lass –”

“There’s more,” Harold said, scanning his papers and looking up.

“Go on, Harold,” I murmured.

“Portsmouth – the sea – the sound of the waves,” John continued through Harold. “I realise they can’t be owned, not truly.  But I almost lost them once, for all my debts, for all my trouble.  Trouble I might never have ended up in if I hadn’t been crushed half to death under the weight of my own guilty conscience. But Gregory Wells?  Before he died, he saved them for me.  He left me the very thing I needed to survive.  He bequeathed me the Atlantic.  He left me a way to heal.  And I know – I know as I write this, lass, that there’s nothing Gregory would want more than for me to pass the Atlantic onto you.  So that –”

My head was down on my folded arms.  My tears were pooling in the shadow beneath me.

“Shall I carry on?”  Harold asked, reaching out and placing his hand on my arm.

“Please – yes –”

“So that you have a place where you can heal,” John resumed through Harold.  “No matter what life throws at you.  But more importantly, no matter what you throw at yourself because, if there’s anything I’ve learned in my sixty-seven years, it’s that half the time, we dig our own graves because we’re human, lass – we’re human.  I can’t see the future, Justine, but I know you.  You’re like me.  You get swept up in your own heart, succumb to the emotions, especially the dark ones.  People like you and me?  We’re prone to transgression.  After Annie died, there were nights I contemplated bringing about my own end.  I was hammering myself to death anyway with an invisible gavel for my crimes of the heart.  But after Gregory died and you came into our lives, I’d often get up at night and go down to the sea.  I’d listen to its rhythm and return to bed calmer, able to sleep. The sea reminded me that I was part of a far bigger story than I could possibly imagine.  It reminded me that I had you and Anthony and Sarah and that I had an unknown family on the other side.  It reminded me that, as flawed as I was, I was part of a whole.  I want that for you.  Greg would want that for you.”

I raised my head from the table and showed Harold my face.

“Oh, Justine,” he said gently.  “This is very difficult, I realise.”

“Keep on reading, Harold,” I said.  “I need to hear John speak.”

“You listen to me, lass,” John ordered, leaning even further over Harold.  “I want you to accept St. Anne’s and keep it for as long as you live.  And when you feel lost – when you feel like you can’t go on – when you’re dying in your own conscience – you’re to go to St. Anne’s – go up to the little bedroom where Gregory convalesced upon his return from Mexico – open the window and listen to the sea.  You’ll know  this by now, I’m certain, but Gregory held himself responsible for the deaths at the mines.  He didn’t want to carry on.  But he said the sea gave him the strength.”

“It’s a lot,” I said, crying.  “It’s too much, Harold, but keep reading.”

“It’s all connected, lass.”  John gusted.  “As a sailor, one knows.  The moon.  The tides.  The weather.  The sea.  It’s all cause and effect.”

And suddenly, I remembered Seymour saying, ‘Sexuality is in everything you touch.  Cord upon cord of energy that runs back and forth between you and the floor and the clothing and your partner and the utterances and the breaths.  It is all connected.  Move however you want to move, and you’ll find one thing reacts to another; it’s all cause and effect.’ 

The memory was there.  I was in Seymour’s studio. As I unwound the watch chain from my wrist to sling it around my neck, the sides of the waistcoat fell agape, revealing my breasts.  As I tugged the clock face down to my sternum, the sunlight handled the gold, sending flashes of light to the ceiling.  Raising my eyes, my back formed an arch and therefore a shade whilst my torso formed a bridge from my throat to my navel, causing my shadow to curve on the wall.  One knee came up to form a new archway, a new shade, a new angle.

“When there’s nothing left, nowhere else you feel you can go,” John continued, “get yourself down to the sea, lass.  Stand on the very edge of England and feel it embrace you.  Feel its sand underfoot, the breeze in your hair, the mist on your skin.  Listen to it.  Inhale it.  Touch it.  You always have somewhere to go, lass.  Write it.  Pass it on to your children.  I love you.  John.”

“Well,” Harold said, setting the paper down.  “It’s always feeling that fuels the action.”

“Oh, Harold.  I don’t know what to say.”

He took off his spectacles and put them in his case, then looked at me and said,  “Take a moment, Justine, but, after today, if you sign what John intended for you to sign, it would seem that you’re now the owner of three houses, three properties: one in the town, one in the country and another by the sea.  Asset-wise, you’re a woman of some wealth.”

As soon as he said that, I saw myself at seventeen, closing the hut and climbing into the carriage, watching the Borough Flats disappear behind me.  Who’d have thought I’d end up here?  And yet, I wondered if the journey had been worth it.  For that seventeen-year-old had been so innocent, so honest, a labouring caregiver to her parents with a penchant on the side for telling entertaining stories.  But now?  With so much death in my wake and a murder under my belt, how could I be happy?

Harold read my mind.

“I know you’ve lost George,” he said quietly.  “But something else is wrong.  Something far greater than George.  You’re deeply unhappy in yourself.  I feel it.”

I looked as far as I could look into his eyes and saw my own reflection – tiny, doubled.

“I’ve said this many times, Justine,” Harold continued. “I’m not afraid of trouble.  And I’m still your solicitor – you can tell me anything you need to tell me.”

“I’d never burden you that way.”

“For God’s sake, Justine, burden me!  It’s my job to be burdened.”

“Not with what I’ve been carrying.”

“There’s nothing I can’t do,” he returned vehemently.  “Haven’t I proven myself with you?  I filled Sir Wells’ wishes.  I got you out of Foxglove when it was dangerous.  I kept you company when you were grieving Sidney.  I’ve fulfilled my obligations for John Winterbourne even though I knew it would be hard to be in your presence again.  I got you out of trouble before and I can get you out of trouble again.”

My heart was breaking as I listened to him.

“You can’t get me out of the trouble I’m in now,” I said.  “For if I tell you, I’m as good as dead. Dead to you and dead to the world.  If it weren’t for Harland, I’d be better off dead.”

“How can you say that?” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.  “Nothing can be as bad as all that.  For God’s sake, Justine, please – let me in.  Please, let me in.”

I closed my eyes and saw him standing in my ribcage, holding up his lantern, confused as he beheld the festering green wallpaper curling from the walls, blasphemy after blasphemy scrawled in ink across my bones, George’s body rotting at our feet.

“I can’t,” I whispered, keeping my eyes shut tightly.  “I simply can’t.”

“Please, Justine.  Talk to me.  Let me in.”

Harold rose and started pacing to keep up with his mental wheels already spinning as he tried to think of ways to get my truth out in the open.  But I spoke before he had the chance to try.

“We’re forever at an impasse,” I said quietly.  “For if you still have feelings for me –”

If?”  He stopped pacing, gripped the edges of the table and shouted, “If I still have feelings for you?  I don’t know about you, Justine, but what I said in our moment together?  I meant it with every fibre of my being.  I loved you then and I love you now.”

“But you won’t love me if I let you in.  It will be over.”

“That’s not true,” he protested.  “You have no idea of my threshold for tolerance, forgiveness, private confessions, secrets.  No bloody idea in the slightest!”

“Perhaps I don’t,” I retaliated.  “But I’d never give you my burden to bear.”

“Bearing your absence would be worse.”

“You bore it for three years,” I said.  “And you survived!”

“Because I thought you were married!  But now you’re not!”

“Like I said a moment ago, we’re at an impasse.  I won’t burden you with my darkness.  And if you insist on being with me in ignorant bliss, you won’t be with me.  You’ll be with a shell of a woman.  And I’ll never let you in because I’m rotten to the core.”

It was getting dark and the fire was burning low.  Harold was back at his seat at the table, leaving over, picking up my empty hands.  “How did George die?” he asked in a low voice.

Tight-lipped, I looked away.

“Look at me, Justine,” Harold said.  “Look at me.”

I shook my head, staying silent.

Lowering his voice to a whisper, he said, “I’m going to say this once – and only once.  You’ll never hear me say it again.  You can infer what you wish to infer.”

I turned back and raised my eyes to his.

“My father battered my mother,” he said.  “For years.  It was routine.  For her to suffer.  For me to distract myself by finding something to focus on beyond my bedroom window. And one day, just like that, my father dropped dead.  The abuse was over forever.  The coroner ruled the cause of my father’s death as a head wound resulting from a blow to the skull on the edge of the marble hearth whilst he was struggling with my mother. That was the verdict, tried and true.”

I stared into his eyes and once again saw myself doubled.

“You see, Justine,” he whispered, “I played cricket. I was a bowler with a love of physics.  Everything comes down to aim, speed, distance, timing.  But more than that.  Time.  It can be your enemy or your closest friend. And I decided long ago that time was on my side.”

I stayed so silent I could hear Harold breathe.

“You should know me by now, Justine,” he resumed.  “I have access to information: records, reports, documents of all sorts.  I already know how George died. Just like so many people all over this little island of ours, George died of arsenic inhalation from the wallpaper.  That is the cause of death determined by the coroner.  It’s in writing.  On the records.  It stands as the truth.  But of course –” He paused, holding my gaze, squeezing my hands.  “We both know that you’re as skilled at working with ink as I am at fixing a clock.”

The room was so quiet, I could’ve heard a pin drop.

“What are you saying, Harold?” I asked eventually, breaking the silence.

“I’m saying that my father died of a head wound,” he replied.  “And I’m saying that I was a bowler who knew how to handle a clock.”

“But you were a child, Harold, acting to protect your mother –”

“I never said I protected my mother,” he interrupted.  “I never said I did anything.  And you?  You never said you did anything.  Listen to me, Justine.  When it comes to the people we love most – the people we’d die for – we’re willing to maneuver ourselves around the inner places they keep vague for everyone’s protection.  If you and I pick up where we left off that night by the fire, we will both be maneuvering around those murky places, ethical bruises we could call them. And I can do that, Justine.  For you, I can do that. The question is – can you do the same for me?”

“I will not jeopardise your job with my past.”

“I don’t need your past to compromise my job; I have my own dark history.”

“I wish it were twenty-seven years ago,” I murmured.  “And we could start from there.”

“Oh, but you don’t,” he responded.  “Not truly.  Because you had a great first love story with Sir Wells from which your whole life stemmed into a saga.  If you’d met me when you were seventeen, you wouldn’t have had half the life that you’ve had now.  You wouldn’t have had a tale to tell, at least not like the one you have.  And you certainly wouldn’t have been the owner of a stately home, a country cottage, and a house beside the sea.  You wouldn’t have been the complex woman that you are.  And I wouldn’t have loved you the way I do; it’s the complexity that intrigues me.”

“I need to think.”

“And I respect that, Justine.”

“I need a fortnight – just.  Then I’ll travel to Portsmouth to see St. Anne’s and we shall see.”

“See?”  Harold raised one eyebrow.

“If there’s room for a second great love story in my life.”

He sighed the deepest sigh I’d ever heard him sigh, then stood and came around, reeling me in, holding my head to his chest, kissing my crown.  Through his open waistcoat, I could hear his heart beating steadily.  He was so steady, was Harold, so controlled.   I wanted to tell him that when all was said and done, the law was not the buoy to which I longed to cling.  He was the buoy.  Harold was the buoy.  But, not wanting to act hastily on my emotion, I held back and didn’t say a word.

 

 

In the end, I paid dearly for my crime of killing George. And my punishment was far worse than if I’d been left swinging over Gallows.

Through that last visit from Harold, I was given a glimpse of what unconditional love looks like. I was offered the protective arms of true confidentiality, but one that would’ve worked both ways and surrounded us in soft, unspoken solidarity.  With Harold, I believed I would’ve been able to notice the sunrise again.  With him, I believed I would’ve grown into my own again.  I would’ve felt the way forgiveness comes as a surprise like a bluebird in midwinter.  I would’ve reinstated my devotion to the human body and known the sex-sway into my old age.  With Harold, I would’ve truly lived again.

But isn’t it cruel?  For life has its own justice system, often harsher than the one manmade. The judge, whether she be God or Life or Pure Coincidence or Lady Justice waiting blinded in the shadows with her balance and her sword to give her ruling, came down harder on me than any bob-wigged magistrate in a hushed courtroom ever would.

My punishment was to have been shown what I might’ve had, to have had my soul teased with an angel of state open to the places slammed shut inside me.  But then to have that angel ripped away, leaving me forever hanging alive by the heartstrings with no relief of rigor mortis on the horizon.  After that, my death sentence was life – a life without Harold.  My execution was to live without a second chance at love, and not just any love, but an ‘in-spite-of-everything’ love which defies all logic and blooms in utter darkness.  My ending was to carry on without the only wedding ring that would’ve ever truly mattered on my finger.  My demise was to wake up each morning and see ‘what could’ve been’ beside me.  To suffer the eternal ache between my thighs and understand ‘what might’ve been’ would never be there.  My grave was my mouth filled with Harold’s absent kisses.  My hell-on-earth was to keep hearing all the things he’d  never tell me.  To close my eyes and know there’s nothing crueler in this world than the act of wishful thinking, an invisible sin for which the sinners should be drawn and quartered.

You see, as Harold was walking back to the Mistwell Inn that night, he was run over by a carriage, its horses startled by something and running wild.  Harold was killed instantly.  The police never discovered who had run him down; the driver had absconded into the night, leaving Harold’s body where it had landed  in a ditch not that far from Foxglove.  I could no longer bring myself to write after that because the one new story which would’ve been worth writing was over before it had barely started – at least in this life.

So, don’t you ever dare to tell me that people get away with murder; for, when all is said and done, none of us – meek, mild, malevolent or vengeful – escape the soundless echo of life’s invisible gavel.