Jerry Potts is dead, but his name lives, and will live. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and "faithful and true" is the character he leaves behind him the best monument of a valuable life.
The indestructible Potts dead. The news excites a pang of melancholy despite the fact that I have not laid eyes on him for a quartercentury. Yes, faithful and true he certainly was. And now, apparently famous too, after a fashion. Jerry Potts, how unlikely a candidate for renown.
Wondering who could have sent me such a notice, I peek into the envelope and dislodge a small piece of notepaper, a few words scrawled on it in pencil. There is something you must know. I can only tell it to you in person. I beg you to come soon. Signed, Custis Straw.
The shock of the name turns me to the window. In the square below, street lamps are shedding an eerie jade light which trembles in the weft of the fog.
It seems I am asked to perform at another's bidding, just as I did more than two decades ago when my father set my feet on the Pasha, 1,790 tons of iron steamship breaching the Irish Sea, bound for New York.
Twilight, the ship trailing scarves of mist, the air wet on my face. Standing at the stern, damp railing gripped in my gloves, sniffing the fishy salt of the ocean, gazing back to the blurred lights of the river traffic plying the mouth of the Mersey.
The land slowly vanishing from sight, retiring at ten knots per hour, as the screw boiled water and I stood, one hand clamped to my top hat to hold it in place, and peered down. Alone. The other passengers had gone to dress for dinner. The propeller frothed the water, beat it white, the ship's wake a metalled road pointing back to England. The breeze freshened, the skirts of my frock coat fluttered. Sailors cried out, preparing to raise auxiliary sail. Chop clapped the sides of the vessel, pale veins of turbulence in the dark granite sea. A first glimpse of stars, their salmon-pink coronas.
Deferential footsteps behind me, a smiling steward had come to announce dinner was served. I shook my head, "Thank you, I shall not dine tonight." The puzzled steward's face. Thirty guineas passage, meals, wine included, and the gentleman does not wish to dine tonight?
Not when I preferred to gaze upon what I was leaving, to recall those figures in the Ford Madox Brown painting, The Last of England. A young couple in the stern of a boat, holding hands, faces sombre, the white cliffs of Dover sentimental in the distance, the ties of the woman's bonnet whipping in the wind. A lady flying from England just as Simon, my twin brother, had fled it.
Beneath my feet, the deck of the Pasha lurched, grew more and more tipsy with every minute that passed. Yet that unsteadiness was nothing to how unbalanced I feel now, staring down into Grosvenor Square, wondering what has prompted Custis Straw's blunt and peremptory summons, what it means.
Out of the black inkwell of the night sky, incongruously, a white flood poured. Fat flakes of lazy snow eddying, sticking like wet feathers to whatever they touched. Simon Gaunt, waking with a start, discovered himself seated on an inert horse, becalmed in a storm. For the briefest of moments, mind a blur of white, he searched for a name. Seized it. "Reverend Witherspoon!" he shouted. "Reverend!"
Nothing answered, nothing moved except for the palsied snow.
Since dawn, Witherspoon had been driving them to the brink of collapse. In London, Simon Gaunt had not recognized the danger of that side of Witherspoon, the reliance on iron rules. Cited like Holy Scripture. When journeying one must never halt until wood and shelter are obtained.
But here, on a barren tabletop plain, wood and shelter were a figment of the imagination.
Copyright © 2002 by G & M Vanderhaeghe Productions Inc.. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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