Authors: Scott Cairns
© Copyright 2012: Scott Cairns
Kindle Version Published August 2012
Upon few things in life you can rely. That you were born is certain and that you will die, irrefutable. What happens in between is a matter of opinion. This story is no different from life. What is certain is that Avery Silver was born and that Avery Silver died. What happened in between is merely opinion.
The birth was straightforward; the first one anyway. It was 1849 and Mrs. Mary Silver had been in a painful labour for over 27 hours when finally a very overdue and plump baby was delivered to the Silver household. As was customary of the time, her husband, Mr. Toby Silver, was not present at the birth, preferring to remain in the company of his associates many streets away. He had been warned of the distress that a birth causes the mother and he felt sure that Mary would prefer him not to hear her in such a state. So it was that, Mary Silver was attended by a reputable doctor beforehand and by a skilled and expensive midwife, Alice Simms, during the labour. Alice was pleased the Silver’s had taken her on for this particular birth as many women were now choosing to accept the help of surgical intervention and, given the long labour, she felt sure that the doctors would have taken a knife to Mrs. Silver in the interim. In Alice Simms’s experience, babies that were late were bound to take longer to come into the world. Such babies were larger and, she believed, lazier. However, the length of the labour had worried even Mrs. Simms, as none of the assembled maids, herself or Mrs. Silver had slept in over a day and the last few hours had been wretched for all concerned. There had been a lot of noise but little production. The head had been visible for an age and a large and healthy one it had looked; the hair was thick and dark with blood. After a full three hours of painful exertion, the child’s head had finally emerged and from there the shoulders followed in a rush of slippery limbs. The room in which Mary Silver’s confinement had been broken was silent for the first time in many hours as the attending midwives held their breath. After a few moments, the infant drew its first breath and, as if there had been a link between those waiting and the arrival of the child, there was a collective sigh of relief; a recycling of life-giving air. Avery Silver had been born; one way or another.
In the years that followed, many thousands of infants were born to expectant and adoring families. Some would live to lead lives of privilege or service
, whilst others would succumb to the diseases of the period or the poverty of their situation. Some births would prove a cause of celebration, whilst others were greeted with the horror of circumstance that having a child out of wedlock, however this had happened, could bring. That Imogen was the progeny of one such coupling had not been her fault but it was her destiny. In a similar rush of limbs, she had been received by a waiting midwife, and then passed to the mother. Though the mother clutched her tenderly, there was an instant air of distance between them.
Please take her from me. I can’t bear to see her and then to lose her.” The mother whispered, hoarse from labour, to the waiting woman.
The woman nodded knowingly and stepped forward to lift the child from the warmth of the mother’s chest. As if she was aware of the situation, the child let out a mewl of protest. A last-minute bid to state her case.
Are you quite sure you want to do this?” The midwife already knew the answer and had begun to turn away before the mother nodded weakly. The child needed feeding and if the mother would not feed it then she wanted to deliver her to the foundling hospital as soon as possible.
You should give her a name.” she offered, as she wrapped the child tightly in her cloak, preparing to brave the February chill. The mother turned her head away and the midwife suspected she had begun to cry. “You should give her a name in case you change your mind.”
She was met with silence and, though her sympathy lay with the young woman, the midwife’s own maternal instinct was to feed the baby swaddled in her arms. She understood the circumstance into which this particular child had been born and, though not her place to say, she half suspected the mother would regret giving the child away. The silence turned into minutes but was broken with the hungry rooting of the nameless baby girl. The midwife sighed and, pulling her hood up, she stooped to pick up her bag and leave.
Imogen.” came the mother’s voice. “Her name is Imogen.”
The midwife turned and caught the damp gaze of the exhausted young woman who lay on the labour bed.
Imogen.” she said and then she was gone.
It is many years later in another bedroom where the next certainty in life is played out. It is gloomy around the edges; the furniture around the walls shies away from the amber glow of the bedside table preferring instead the anonymity of the dark.
A glow emanates from an oil lamp, whose wick is turned up high, casting a sphere of yellow light around the bed and up the wall behind. Your attention is drawn to the bed and its occupant. An ornate brass bedstead is dressed with stark white sheets; the crisp linen is ruffled by the body of an unruffled, silver-haired gentleman reading a book. Silver by nature and by name; let me introduce you to Avery Silver.
Avery is propped against the bedstead with an array of pillows, his head bent in study. You would be forgiven for thinking him far beyond his sixty years. The angle of his head and the light has cast an unflattering shadow, emphasising the lines across his face. His shoulders are slumped in rest and he looks as frail as a cobweb. It is past midnight on the third day of the New Year, 1911 and Avery is wakeful. Since his wife died some years ago, he finds night time the hardest. The step over which most of us tumble into sleep, Avery seems only to falter at. On the threshold of dormancy, he imagines she is still lain beside him and he starts awake in his bed; his hand smoothes across the sheets beside him to find only nothing. The years have turned this ritual into a habit and he finds himself quite unable to sleep before the small hours. Tonight is no different. Avery is supporting a weighty leather book, his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. The book is well thumbed, the pages soft beneath his fingertips as he tentatively holds a page aloft, ready to turn. His lips move silently as he scans the words.
‘I don't agree to that -
it may make them dangers. We know too much about people in these days; we hear too much. Our ears, our minds, our mouths, are stuffed with personalities. Don't mind anything any one tells you about anyone else. Judge everyone and everything for yourself.’
Avery’s focus changes as he stops reading. His concentration shifts from the written page as he considers these words in his head. As he does so, he glances up to look at the gloomy room. His eyes sparkle as the light catches them. His thoughts are far away and he sees only the dark outline of the curtains. His countenance clouds and the expression upon his face shifts to one of deep consideration.
‘Don't mind anything any
one tells you about anyone else. Judge everyone and everything for yourself.’
It is but one ordinary word placed after another but in the ordinary can be found the extraordinary. In this ordinary room, something very normal will take place. This sleepy eyed gentleman with his long nose, down which he now peers at the fuzzy words on the page, is going to die. He is going to die before he even finishes the sentence he is trying to read. Now, before your pulse starts racing, I am afraid there is nothing spectacular to witness here. If you are excited by the dramatic entrance of a dark haired assailant then this is the wrong sort of story for you. There will be no death at the hands of a deranged madman.
Avery Silver will depart this world in the most common of ways: His skin will flush hot, and then cold, and he will draw a sharp breath. He will look around into the gloom of the room for some assistance, knowing there to be none. He will cry out a little as a crushing pain over his chest threatens to squeeze the air from his lungs. His body, were you to touch it, would be clammy and cool. The thin skin across his aging bones will be pale and you will suspect he is dead already. His shoulder will hunch to his ear as he draws up his hand to clutch at his heart. His book will fall to the floor beside his bed, the pages curling under the weight of the binding. He will blink once and look around to where his wife used to lay, his eyes wide with fear, and he will slump towards the empty bed, his hands smoothing the sheets before him.
All manner of deaths are recorded in black and white and this one shall not be any different, for in the end they all stop breathing, their hearts stop beating and their chests fall with one final sigh.
After spending Christmas with my husband’s family we returned home to Hampstead in the New Year. As we swept in through the front door with our bags and our hails of a Happy New Year to the house and its occupants, we were greeted by a cheerless mob. Our butler, Stokes, was standing in the hall and appeared very sombre indeed. From beyond the corridor, I could make out the faces of our maid, and the housekeeper, peering from the basement stairs. I was most perturbed that they should be so grim-faced amidst our jolly mood. My heart sank as I considered the cause of their sullen one. I wondered if our neighbour, poor old Mrs. Crossfield, had taken a turn for the worse. Oblivious to the ominous faces around them, the boys were dancing around their father, still singing a carol, holding hands and encircling his legs.
Nanny Hewitt,” I beckoned to the tall drab woman following us in. “will you take Thomas and Sebastian to the nursery.”
She hadn’t waited for me to finish but had stepped forward and ushered the boys up the stairs without a further word. They reluctantly followed the lead of their imposing nanny and cast doleful glances through the banisters as they went. Thomas, older than Sebastian by a year, had noticed the solemn faces of the staff and was pressing Mrs. Hewitt in hushed tones for the news.
Hush, boy.” she admonished and swept them out of view, her shushing skirts the only noise in the whole house save for the grandfather clock, which now ticked ominously.
What is it, Stokes?” John enquired of our po-faced butler.
My husband continued to shrug off his great coat, Maud rushing forward to assist. I watched as Stokes looked from my husband back to me. I noticed with a feeling of dread that he didn’t catch my eye. John handed over his scarf and gloves before rounding back on Stokes, waiting.
Come on man, out with it.” he coaxed after a brief pause.
Sir, Madam,” he ventured, and then, stepping aside, he gestured to the parlour. John’s impeccable manners forced him to wait for me to enter the room, but he was hot on my heels and impatient for the news as Stokes closed the door behind us.
It is Mrs. Bancroft’s father,” he began.
I knew he was dead without John having to ask. The tone was all too familiar of my mother’s death and my heart slowed down. I watched John's face fall and he looked over at me. My ears filled up and the steady voice of Stokes became like the sound of a distant hum. John had taken a few steps towards me but something Stokes said made him stop dead.
...police constable.....happened suddenly…”
w of Stokes' words reached inside my shock. I must have sat down and John, still shaking his head angrily at Stokes, was at my side in a moment. He knelt with my hand in his, mouthing words at me and patting my arm. I watched as he said something to Stokes; the butler’s expression changed and his head hung low as he mumbled a response.
..appears to be a problem....the police are suggesting.....Mr. Silver’s body.”
John turned sharply and then his face clouded with unmistakable anger.
Can't it wait,” he shouted again. The noise burst through the fog in my head and I was, all at once, back in the room. “Where is he?” John hissed, struggling to keep his temper.
Glancing quickly at me, he clutched my hand almost protectively and then turned to dismiss Stokes.
? Are you all right?” He stood again, one hand against his brow as he considered me. The other hand, I noticed, was shaking. “I shall ring for Maud to take you upstairs.”
I shook my head and tried to stop him as he strode across the room and pressed the bell at the fireside.
..must be some mistake...” he muttered. “I’ll speak to the police constable and get to the bottom of this nonsense and then go to Avery’s house myself and...”
John was upset about something I had missed and I needed to know what it was.
“What did Stokes say, John?”
“…there’ll be hell to answer for with his superiors. Just see if there isn’t. This must be able to wait.”
At that moment, the door opened and Maud stepped into the room. She dipped into a brief curtsey and John indicated to me, saying, “Mrs. Bancroft has had rather a shock and she would like to go to her room.”
Maud's face was pale and she approached me warily.
I’m sorry for your loss Mrs. Bancroft. Shall we get you upstairs?”
John was trying to gently coax me out of the chair as the door opened again and Stokes indicated to him that someone was waiting in the hall. He nodded and strode across the room throwing last instructions to Maud
“See that Mrs. Bancroft is not disturbed, Maud, I don’t want her being upset.”
Having just been advised of my father’s death, I failed to see what else could upset me and I was starting to feel an impatience rise within me. I felt as though I was being treated like an invalid.
John,’ I shouted. ‘What did Stokes say?”
I stood up to deliver this and I shook with the effort of making myself heard over Maud's twittering, and John and Stokes’ hushed parlay at the door. All three of them stopped what they were doing and looked at me aghast. John’s mouth opened and closed and opened again before he decided he could not repeat what Stokes had said. I turned to Stokes, who seemed also to have been struck dumb. He could not look at me and instead looked to his employer for his leave. Amidst the silence and the gawping, a third face appeared at the door behind John and Stokes. He was a tall, slender man in a black woollen suit, his face gaunt and lined with tiredness. I took him for an age similar to my father but as he brushed past Stokes and my husband and spoke, I recognised in him a wealth, not of years but of weariness.
“Mrs. Bancroft,” he enquired, and I nodded. “I am Inspector Charles Hurst, Madam. I think we should perhaps sit down. May I?” he added indicating the seat in front of my own. He stepped forward and stood before the armchair in front of mine. As I sat down, he looked back to John, who regained himself and dismissed the staff before joining me with the Inspector.
This may come as a great shock to you, Mrs. Bancroft. You may wish to stay seated.”
As the carriage pulled up at my father’s house, I noticed first the crowd of people standing outside the railings. They numbered more than twenty and they peered curiously into the cab, wondering who else had come to join the rumpus. At first, I did not recognise any of the faces staring at me. Most were men, clutching notepads and pressing each other to get the best vantage of those freshly arrived upon the scene. They took in John more than myself, perhaps mistaking him for a senior inspector or perhaps another doctor come to examine my father’s corpse. As the carriage drew to a stop, I surveyed the sea of faces and recognised one of them towards the back of the crowd. A neighbour of my parents for some years, the usually jolly Mrs. Phelps was pale with the cold. She looked half frozen from the bitter fog but, as her eyes lit upon mine, her face at once was alive. Caught up in the excitement of this hubbub, she began directing the reporters as soon as she recognised me. At once, the noise about us began to rise.
Over here! Did you know your father‘s secret?”
The men at the front of the group began pushing to get to the door. The bridled horse danced nervously with the cluster of people at his flank.
Get back,” called the driver. “Get back, I say!” A large man, he brandished his furled whip menacingly, the horse rearing a little at his tone.
Inside the cab I clutched John’s arm; the solemn and quiet of our contemplation on the journey had been broken and now we were to face the reality of this horrible situation. It was at once both surreal and horribly real. The ugly commotion outside my father’s house was most scandalous. This area was respectable and unaccustomed to such scenes. Those neighbours that were not joined in the throng of people outside the cab were peering from behind curtains, the staff standing behind railings or pressed at the attic windows. There were people in the crowd who did not belong in the area. Two young women dressed in shabby evening wear, with thin shawls around their shoulders that barely concealed the raw blue of their skin, stood gawping from the corner of the street. We had passed small huddles of people leaning on one another, passing hushed laughter behind their hands, all the while pointing in the direction of my father’s house. All the people who did not belong and all those who did, had been drawn by the same heady scent of scandal, and had followed their noses to my father’s house. My respectable, quiet father would have been appalled at the scenes but it was he himself that lay at the very heart of the circus. John leaned across me and climbed down from the cab only to be pressed by half a dozen men.
Did you know he was keeping something from you?”
“Is it true?”
“Gentlemen, please. My wife is grieving. We have nothing to comment.” John reached back inside to take my hand and led me from the carriage through the throng and to the front door. The crowd fell silent as I stepped down from the cab and parted to let us through; a moment’s peace at seeing my grief, perhaps to preserve some decorum. Those few yards seemed an eternity to walk; all eyes were watching and I leaned on John for support, fearing I would collapse under the weight of their gaze. At the top of the steps, my father’s elderly butler, Heston was waiting. As we reached the door there was a shout from a way off and I turned. The two women from the corner had walked across the square and had called out.
Immy.” John gently guided me towards the door when the shout came again. This time I made it out quite clearly.
‘er dad has no cock but ‘er mother did!” Her companion hooted and the two of them fell about cackling to each other. As the crowd around us watched this exchange, the noise began to rise again. The ludicrous suggestion by a bawdy house tart had stirred the men of the press from their modesty and we were jostled the remaining few steps to the door.
Ushering us into the house quickly, Heston called out to the mob.
You should be ashamed of yourselves,” he shouted and there was a hush. Pens poised, they waited, collectively holding their breath at the tantalising show of emotion. Perhaps something was to be divulged. “All of you,” he added in a quieter tone, scanning the faces at the front of his master’s house. Composing himself, he turned back inside the house and his anger was barely concealed as he shut the door with a shaking hand. He turned to face John and myself and apologised.
I am so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Bancroft. I didn’t mean to lose my temper.”
It had hardly been an outburst, but for the gentle and softly spoken butler, that was indeed the most irate one could expect to see him. His normally well-ordered life was in disarray and he coloured at his impropriety.
I was cheered a little to see a familiar face and for that face not to conceal any contempt, and I placed a hand on his arm. It remained there but for a few seconds; the white gloved hand of a lady upon this servant’s sombre black uniform was uncomfortably out of place, and immediately reminded me of the strangeness of what had brought me to the house. Heston straightened immediately and with a military air resumed his role of transferring us into my father’s study, where a police constable and suited man were waiting. The man was my father’s age, once tall but now seeming not to fit his clothes as perhaps he once did. He had in his hand a book from my father’s bookcase and was leaning towards the window the better to read the inscription. I recognised the binding instantly; a collection of classic verse from Milton and Wordsworth. I knew the books well. They had been a gift of my mother’s to my father on their Silver wedding anniversary. A collection of romantic poetry, I had cherished that particular volume when John and I were courting. Cryptic as always, the inscription was one of my mother’s.
hat God has torn apart, let man lovingly make whole.’
Before I could enquire of this man what business he had rifling through my father’s belongings, he had put the book down on the desk and stepped forwards to introduce himself.
he proffered his hand first to John and then he addressed me directly.
You have my condolences, Mrs. Bancroft. I take it you have been briefed by my colleague?”
I nodded and beckoned to Heston who brought me a chair. The Inspector waited until I was seated and then leaned back against the desk, behind which my poor father would never again sit. I was taken by this melancholy thought and a tear began to slip down my cheek. It was apparent that this disturbed the Inspector’s sense of dignity and he watched me solemnly for a moment before offering his handkerchief. He turned to face John and directed a summary of the proceedings to him in hushed tones.