The Writers Voice
The World's Favourite Literary Website

The Promise E*S*E


June Harcourt


He would have to keep it between Jack and himself. Surely this 'small matter of business' involved nothing more than the 'laying out' of some borrowed capital and Hectors 'roping-in' of a titled guarantor. Smith had been alarmingly non-specific. Definitely not what one expected of an accomplished angler, they chose their baits to tempt specific fish. If any forthcoming propositions included a goodwill jaunt to say St Moritz, Carpenter would consider it a prudent marriage of agendas. He could take Clara - flush her from the footlit world, a world of shadow and glare, to the matt-pink drawing-room world, consistently ill-lit and monochrome. Was one milieu any less stagy than the other? She could strut with equal aplomb across flooded decks of marble or linoleum. Least he could be grateful to Jack for introducing them if not for almost stalling his run on respectability and financial ease. If not for almost diverting his name from history towards oblivion. If not...

The spectral courtroom haunted Hector's consideration. His brother Jack dwarfed by the mint-condition mahogany of the dock and their mother, a night-clad apparition, bemoaning this one benighted son, at the very moment her feted one came bowling into the invalids closet to present his Antarctic book bound in packing-case and etched with the grit from their hut. He then became her hope. The son who noisily faltered, who lacked talent, the ostentatiously ambitious, least intellectually-smooth son, the sailor brawny and bold who blustered his way out of trouble. Jack would sink deep into the slough but Hector forge tackle and escape. Now Jack had arisen again, had he?

* * *

Blandford Forum evolved to suit its name. Blocks of unremarkable rubble in the centre of a miserable green patchwork where Jack Carpenter had retired after his gaol term to roost like an anonymous hen in a shop as roomy and convenient as a coop. It sold curios such as the ponderous Jacobean broth-scalder that a nervous couple had moments before sheepishly exposed to his scrutiny. Jack could plainly read desperation in their faces. Their spoons were their hoard. But when Hector walked in, he began to neatly wind the dull cutlery back in its flannel shroud for old spoons were as good as dead.

"Come back tomorrow," he told them smartly. "I will have checked my catalogues by then. These spoons, you must appreciate, bear no crests. But you never know..."

The couple seemed meekly satisfied and edged their way past the gentleman with elbows tight like folded wings so as not to disturb the many pretty objects jostling for shelf space. Hector sheltered under his hat as if their eyes were spitting rain. As soon as the pair had dropped onto the street, however, he took of his hat and his eyes were wide. Jack spoke:

"For the first time in my life, I can honestly say I am dumbfounded. You should have let me know you were coming."

Hector had vowed never to see his disgraced brother again.

"Well you would more likely write dumbfounded than put it in speech," rejoined Hector. They warily sized up each other. Must feed them enough in prison, Hector thought. Then what could be surmised about one, fit the other. An applied quiescence in the juvenile enthusiasms that so attracted people, a self-control so recently perfected, grief. But Jack also saw a humbled man, the epitome of foreboding.

Jack suggested they adjourn to a mossy courtyard at the rear of the shop, for a smoke. Hector agreed and there against limey, cobbled bricks softened by cool sun, their spherical arguments rebounded. Sharp metal splinters from old farm contraptions clawed at their clothes and crinolines stacked like fish traps. Jack bulged on the three-legged stool which he had positioned to catch the sun-stream.

"That fellow, Smith...” Hector shifted his burden of misapprehension from shoulder to the open palm of his hand. Only because he strongly believed in his brothers masterminding the 'Smith show’ did he describe the circumstances of the three encounters with Smith, blithely. Then he looked quizzical, relieved to have told it to someone whom he felt instinctively understood.

"Which Smith?" Jack asked, tautly.

"How many do you know?"

"As Rawlings, I know several in this town, as Carpenter, I know only two."

What degree of faith could be placed in his brother's testimony? He had fiendishly tricked some money from a decent elderly lady. She had trusted him, cocooned him in a lace chrysalis, then brimming with lavish expectations of what butterfly he would become, discovered a brown and hairy spider gnawing at her silk ribbons, devouring them utterly. Dishonour. Incarceration. Hector's epic soul recoiled from such meannesses.

"Everyday," he began, "a man comes across Smiths of many kinds - blacksmiths, wordsmiths, gunsmiths but the Smith that confronted me the other evening, was none of these."

"Why do you presume this business has my stamp on it," Jack barked, irked by Hector's cryptic, wounded-doe appeals for information. "I've never so much as scraped plates for any underworld chieftains. And whatsmore Smith is no longer known to me, so if you wish me to advise you on a plan of action, I can only do so as an impartial observer."

Hector began to roam, thoughtfully. All his fantastic ideas, of Jack surfacing with stories of pearly treasures beneath the sea and the brothers dredging it together and of a prospectus, lay shattered. He had wondered if Smith's overtures hadn’t been a circuitous way of Jacks getting in touch.

"Yes, yes," continued Jack, "And he may be a blackmailer or...” He was thinking assassin but unless Hector had been surreptitiously exchanging landmark- naming for political or sexual gaming, what motive?

I don't want to be here, the phrase pounded in time to the roaming, I don't want to be here, I don't want to be here.

Jack could see him shutting down. Perhaps he was deeply fraught and not bored.

"Mustn't jump to conclusions, Hec old thing, particularly as Smith's raison'd'etre is still mysterious. Go to Battersea and clear it up." Leathwaite road adjoined Clapham Common. An accommodating acreage of shrubbery for corpse disposal.

Jack had once categorized Hector's circumambulations of vast rooms into the ruminant plod, the drag, the suicide charge, the busy amble and the man-of -the- world billiard-ball swagger. A correlation of space with length of stride was all too obvious in the claustrophobic confines of the shops little yard. The penguins’ spree.

"Naturally I will go there," Hector said, idly crushing his cigarette stub into a brick-cleft. " Now you have assured me of your non-involvement I feel our families are saved from further scandals...of this flavour."

"Oh so it's not a question of you seeking my advice?" Jack felt illuminated and free. "In that case I can say how I think your years on the ice have taken their toll. Penguins waddle, true?"

"On land. In the water they glide with as much vigour and grace as the albatross. Then they can also leap from the water onto the floe seemingly without effort. I can't think of another animal to compare them with in the leaping department, Deer, I suppose. Are you interested in the creatures of the polar regions? If so then you should see our movie, grand footage of seals and penguin colonies even of the killers. Some of the wildlife stuff was shot later to pad out the dramatic sequences of everyday life and the ships demise. But it gives you the sensation of standing mug to mug with a sea elephant."

"I was merely going to remark upon your ungainly gait."

Hector laughed, "Some of the penguin species are only this high," he put a hand to his knee, "so unless I am an emperor, why not make seal an analogy. An almost exclusive intake of seal fat will mould you into a passable replica of one." So saying he nudged aside a wicker hive then displayed himself like a basking seal upon the oil-smeared flagstones. A stillness quivered through him as if the pose was eternal rest. He stared at the square of naked sky above. "At the frozen tips of the earth, all animal life knows the importance of waiting. It waits for the return of day, for spring's succulent green shoots, for its mate to call or for its chick to fledge." Hector inclined onto his elbows. "I am waiting for fate to overtake me and what about you, Jacky? A snug little cell you have built for yourself here - well-armed with all these spiky defences prepared to repulse life. What’s this thing?" He sat up and placed on his lap a rusted kind of dog-comb.

"I think it’s called a feather-splitter, for splicing the wings of hawks and falcons. Makes them less wild." The antique business made Jack feel secure and he thought it a bit caddish for Hector to bring up the cell thing.

" I don't think it appropriate for us to be seen in the town together but come upstairs to my sanctum. Your face was fairly regular in the "Sun' for a while.” Now why should Rawlings be totting around the place with a recognizable hero? Might he be recruiting Rawlings for an expedition?

“You've met the locals, the two with the spoons. Village life is like the cloistered one - a closed order."

Suddenly Jack felt it was good to be speaking about 'them' instead of with them. Hector admitted another engagement, yet his curiosity won over. Not actually affection for his brother but a chance to uncover implications for himself, if Smiths actions turned criminal. Where was there another such alien and blasted, earthy configuration of dwellings for his potential ruin to tunnel? Bland-ford.... what possible dignity could it af-ford to broken Carpenters.

* * *

Whilst occupied in the region [Hector was booked to deliver an evening lecture in Dorchester], he thought he may as well pay a call on the literary bombshell, William Sorley-Sharpe. Ensconced behind a gigantic wall festooned with meshing vines, the gables of a Victorian factory-red building pricked, alert, like cats ears. Sharpe lived loudly there with his Fabian wife and a savage Dachshund. Hector had dabbled in the shallows of rarefied literary thermal - pools to warm his feet, but never truly succumbed to their luscious, licking waters, it was more a case of his floundering having attracted the great-white wits, their lizard-like eyes keenly attuned to selecting the expert bathers from the frankly hopeless and then ripping them to shreds. Awkwardly, Hector had tried to deflect them from his scent of lax education, some that is who minded. His running away to sea at age sixteen, generally mellowed any faux pas with a patina of Melville or Jack London or coal miners who wrote. His having down pat a conversational device of flipping the trajectories of oncoming barbs and shooting them back at their manufacturers, aided the creep towards pseudo-artistic acceptance.

At once he noticed and admired the hulking combination of metals, a mighty steed of a motorcycle smudging gravel in the Sharpe's driveway. Their maid said it belonged to an acquaintance of the Sharpes very recently returned from the Middle East. Hector was shown into the disorganized study where three backs at a bookshelf simultaneously swivelled like weathervanes.

"Sir Hector, how nice of you to visit." Alice Sorely-Sharp extended her hand and beamed. " We saw an advertisement for your slide show tonight. Will it be like Hunts, poor Hunt...”

"Not quite." Because I'm alive and he is dead, retorted thought.

Hector detected they could all mind-read. Following further introductions and pleasantries, a pristine volume was thrust into his hands. With four people in an undernourished study, Hector felt captainish though wasn't at all confident he could dominate the new man. Sharpe was alright. He sucked-in Hector's glorious exudations as a crippled sailor would drink in the tobacco smoke, salt-smell and exotic yarns discharged with cargoes from far-flung ports. And because Carpenter openly eschewed that undemocratic clique-system that generates class-systems, Alice could almost applaud his dearth of intellectual rigour.

It was a volume of war poetry which the motorcyclist appeared to covet with the ardour of a lover, a lover of precious things. Hector dipped in, pretty modern stuff. He couldn't resist an urge to stir.

He trained his eyes on the sandy-hair of Potts, for this was the small fellow's name, then jauntily enumerated the multifarious functions which his deprived comrades had found the pages and plates of the ships extensive library, perfectly designed to fulfill. Kindling fires and wiping pans. Of course the most shameful job undertaken by the most divinely printed authors, he invited the trio to deduce or choose to ignore. Potts sort of cowered like a university chap, Hector initially observed but actually said, in a smouldery voice, that he believed the ultimate and most beneficial use for any bound or unbound work was as an incendiary. His own "Morte D'Arthur” met its end on a railway sleeper in the middle of a desert, rammed with explosives and soaked in fuel. Blazing the pathway to mediaeval wisdom like a Phrygian torch in the star-peppered night.

"G. E. has spent a number of years combing Syrian wastelands for ruined cities," said William winking at Potts who grinned back, excluding Hector from their joke, "But lately its been the war..."

"I've just come back from Jordan. We are trying to establish a state there for the Arabs."

"Are you a politician? I'm sorry but I can't place the name 'Potts'," Hector queried.

"Mr Potts is really Colonel Pink, the Arabian Pink, Isn’t that so G.E. I can't bear all this tomfoolery. William thinks it’s farcical and plays it up but amongst friends incognitos are simply unfunny bores. Its not likely Sir Hector is going to run off to the press, is it Sir Hector? G.E hopes a change of name will lead people to found their judgements on the merit of his character and not reputation. But I don't know if he intends to publish under the pseudonym. By the way, I cannot continue to address you as Sir Hector. Will Hector do? You did tell us the knighthood just happened to be tied in with an acceptance of the money." Alice who had earlier left the tiny study to make arrangements for afternoon tea, had taken possession of the doorway, half-excited by the diverse sample of humanity that confronted her. The thin, the big and the self-contained. She wished the manly, vapid decorum to crumple and for her ceaseless jabbering to be its crumpler.

Now, thought Hector, she will direct some satire at the King, whom he had met and found inoffensive. The woman was most likely a bolshy sympathizer from whom even the blowing up of children shook not a tear.

Sharpe and his wife exemplified the 'marriage-of-minds' type partnership, almost an academic body. A woman without emotion was a woman who denied her sex. As the men filed past Mrs Sorley-Sharpe in the doorway, Hector saw her pat Pink or Potts on the back not like a mother but like a superior officer and he visibly flinched. Alice matched an adjective to object - 'unrepeatable action'. Wartime trauma had heightened Pott's physical sensitivity.

As the afternoon wore on, Potts retraction of life became clearer. Whatever he did, he did it in a reduced-fat fashion. Was he trying to preserve his energy? Was he trying to outdo the furniture? All his mousy gestures and curled body-parts and lowered eyes and soft voice and over-hanging locks- slightly effete? Or was he acting the role of alienated, misunderstood youth, damaged goods? Hector himself had used to stand in the guarding- ones- integrity posture but only when a young black sheep in a snowy mob. Perhaps Potts wasn't yet easy with the Sharpe's or perhaps he shied from Hectors unscholarly achievements. Or was he simply incognito like brother Jack, hiding from himself and the world? Then again, if his business happened to be politics...

"I tried politicking once," said Hector breezily to Pink, but I think it was my Irishness that weaned off the voters." The two had been left in the garden together, pointedly, by their hosts who must have felt them to share some interests because surely it wasn't a pairing of personality. Pink said he too had Irish blood, on his father’s side. But no further political ambitions. Hector would now forsake his internal Smithologizing for fund-raising. If only he could lift some august-body onto his cause, like every bloody university in England.

"Have you a position pending at any particular scholarly institution?" he asked Pink. "I know the resolution of the war in Europe has left many at a loose end." Including himself. "Sharpe thinks you could become governor or Iraq." That was a long way from the treacherous Southern ice. Hector quickly began to despair of Pinks proving a munificent chance encounter.

"I suppose I shall continue writing my book, ' Pink replied, precise. "I want to write about the desert people and their traditions and about certain cities and about.... I just want to write. The Arabian peninsula is full of fascinating things to write about." So here was another would-be Burton squirming in his ordinary clothes. But when they drew near to the wonderful shining machine suddenly G.E.'s eyes flashed like the headlamps of a speeding car clipped by sunlight and then released into passing shade. Outside, the deeply recessed, crisp sky-blue eyes allied him with the elemental blues of ocean and sky that only ice could absorb fully, and exalt.

"I'm going to scour every lane and road in England. This is my ticket," he said, basting his hand with the sun-warmed juice of a new leather saddle.

Having roved like himself, Pink thought, this other man would appreciate the pull of the yet untravelled. "I've taught myself alot about the internal combustion engine. Towards the end of our campaign the Rolls Royce thundered into the desert. It proved less temperamental then camel flesh and virtually eliminated our need of it."

Hector chuckled deep in his throat before asking Potts if he ever ate camel.

The answer was yes.

Potts sinewy skin bore stigmata of exposure to fierce weathers, noticed Hector, his eyes following the worn hands petting of the motor-cycle in repose, like a solitary coal-veined boulder. In no way a pale, boneless flopping of the aesthetic hand. Crafty hands.

"Esqiumaux dogs have their drawbacks. In certain seasons, under certain conditions such as sexual deprivation, starvation, blizzard, their aggression is legendary, we had one.... ripped its companions throat out. And then they would enmasse attack the floating penguin population. Leather halters were easily bitten through by the hungry beasts, even consumed."

"So, said Potts, "you would agree then that internal combustion offers the soundest, most sensible solution."

"Only,” delivered Hector as though rehearsing his oratory, " if the terrains are sound. A wheel like a hoof will sink disastrously into fresh snow. Success requires a minimum of such snow, no sastrugi and no dunes, no flints eh...the flinty desert?" Hector's ignorance rankled. Maybe he could damp it down with regurgitated snippets from his boyhood twelve-volume set of 'Lands and Peoples’. However, Potts seemed his own representative rather than a speaking trumpet for uncivil forces set on undermining the dilettantism of an independent thinker. So Hector could safely confess:

"Drifted around the rim of the region but never actually gone inland."

Later when Sir Hector had departed, Alice who had been blatantly peering at he and G.E. through the parlour window instead of telephoning, as she had said, and William who had likewise, although at his desk, been wafting his gaze through his study panes, invited Pink to join them in Dorchester for the polar lecture and slide presentation. Possibly, but then the lateness of hour would require he undertake a non-stop all-night cycle ride, his headlamp like the globular moon guiding highwaymen on their grim and bloody routes.

"I'm a little concerned," Alice delicately announced, " for the welfare of Sir Hector."

"And what are the latest rumours? " William quizzed. "Is he ailing?"

"Not that I'm aware. He's been borrowing money. Emily Carpenter has been canvassing the fact. She's desperate but he continues to give away an amount of whatever he gets, to hospitals. Some of those unfortunate men he rescued have yet to be fully paid. He was their employer, you see."

G.E. looked confused: " Would it be unreasonable to suggest his chances of going exploring again have slimmed since we talked about an hour ago. He seemed fairly confident. First he's going to Norway to look at ships..."

Sorley-Sharpe shook his head. "I wonder whether parliament is happy to endorse the scheme. They Commons can usually scrape up funds but after the Hunt debacle and Carpenter's near thing and an over-abundance of war-heroes..."

"I know" Alice quickly said. "I will see if I can interest Katherine Hunt. I'm sure she has a soft spot for the arctic-antarctic business."

"Especially since her husband lost his life at the Pole", Pink added sombrely.

* * *

'My dear Papa,

My school friends were extremely envious of my London tour last week. They have never been to a museum before where some exhibits were given to the museum by their own Father. Also have found some curious rocks on a footpath behind my school which I hope to show you when next we meet. They have crystals in them. Please could you come to Bournemouth next summer so we can have picnics. Mama says she hopes you are not going to leave us again because the South Pole has been discovered and there is not a need for anyone to go there again. The slippers that you bought me suit very well but I have to hide them from my friends who only have woollen ones.

Yours very

Affectionately, Gwennie.

Hector wistfully pocketed the letter. And how very graciously, Clara in muffs and scent, had sidled near to them in the bird room like a predatory species herself, perhaps wanting to shred his tentative father-daughter relationship or perhaps reverse the role of cuckoo by foisting out the natural mother. And Gwennie had shyly whispered to him about the fancy lady following them. Could he associate in any sensible form this bizarre inclination of his amore with Smith's appearances? All his life he had by good fortune and fair weather managed to elude the civil suit. Smith and Hickox might be inseparable halves of the one ill-omen. They might be the invisible figure hovering over his shoulder wielding a sword. The twin-bodied doppelganger.

Hector's concentration was impaired. He'd begun to mumble his talks. Well, he didn't feel for a minute these provincial audiences would pick out an inaccurate estimation of distance, misquotation of heroic stanza, mangling of genera, sub-species and vernacular. Anyway the hues of his audiences had so begun to weaken in contrast and richness, that not only to Hectors eyes was his own life chemically fading like an old negative, but the world he viewed merged like a flock of grey doves smoking their way into an overcast heaven.

For a change he could worry about Gwennies schoolgirl passion for geology. Not seemly for a young girl. She should be kneading her imagination into a dough of seduction, aim for the wealthiest laird of the land.... keep her mother company... loll at her aged Papa's feet and beg for more stories. Millais's picture ‘the North-west passage’ represented one of the finales scripted for aged mariners, the pathetic yet commanding grey-beard regaling his grand-progeny with thrilling whale tails. Melville was typical. Then there had been Swithem, the one crushed by a precarious bookcase. A wizened but brisk old man who would swig the breath of the flowering sons of England as though it were the finest madeira before driving them into the medusa arms of fortune to serve his perverse ambitions.

* * *

Finally he was to uncover the truth about Smith. Puppet-like silhouettes swayed behind a screen of filmy curtaining as Hector approached the address. Rubbish had collected in the corners of the miniature front garden apparently kept as ash-pit. Normally without much agonizing one can trace the hand of woman in the lineaments of a homes' street frontage, through the presence or absence of frills and potted plants. So with the address in Leathwaite Road - a male establishment if ever there was one. Crates of bottles at the side, mountains of dusty leaves against the door, even an odour.

Sir Hec had eventually brought Mackintosh into the game. Once the strain of hint-dropping, harrowing stares, self-eulogizing in the grave tones of an archbishop, had pulverized his resolve to keep secrets secret, he had painted a florid expose of urban anarchy that shook Mac. Now, knuckles as bloodless as an imperilled mountaineer, Hector clutched at an awareness of Mac's vigilant patrol of the vicinity. Neither expected trouble. Even so, the man loitering in the badly-tailored overcoat was his man.

The hulking steely-eyed man who edged open the door was emphatically not. However, he did emerge familiarly from an unanticipated quarter of Sir Hector Carpenter's ken. Hector remembered the shrunken face bloated with drink and....evil? He remembered the bruised whimper of the cabin-boy, the charred crossbeams, the brutal language and the sneer of incredulity as Hector ordered the miscreants dismissal from the sanctuary of the ship to the limbo of a foreign port. This was the face of a man Hector had failed to interpret and Hector always counted the reading of men as one of his talents.

“If it isn't me old captain. Pleased to see you again, sir," said the man holding the door. His voice grated like a dry hinge. He had missed out on a Polar medal because of the thing preparing to cross the threshold. Hector wavered and said:


"Come right in, we've something to show you in here."

Hector ruefully felt that to enter the narrow passage was to sandwich himself between the lurid pages of a third-rate novel, Yes there was a velveteen drape, plum-coloured separating the domestic from the business. Filthy hand and thumbprints around the lightswitch. The sickly whiff of broiling cabbage? Russian novels and Russian Jews and anarchists and Bloody Sunday and a beautiful girl somewhere in the back mopping the wounds, awaiting her freedom, awaiting her rescuer. For a second he glanced askance to see if his over-coated man had loitered into range yet it was simply the laggard autumn leaves that flapped on the other side of the street. Forever, it seemed, Hector had wrestled to suppress an overweening imagination. How often its embrace would topple him.

Thankfully, the mutinous ex-expeditioner disappeared up a staircase, grunting. Initially Hector thought he had been left alone but then the porridgey accent of a Scot hailed him from within the doorless room to his left. Could it be Archie Craigie? Steepling shafts of boxes and instrument cases told that it could. With a pouff! The sinister forebodings that had incubated against his beating chest evaporated. He was light as a feather. But first he had to get a bearing on the voice. Boxes touched the ceiling. They blocked the window. Then a bespectacled gentleman arose from a leather-padded armchair, his solid ground wedged in a massive cardboard pack, and they shook hands. It was Archie. Oh, his hand felt good.

Murchison, the ruffian, came in with some beer and then stomped away again. Archie’s chat rang true, the ale proved palatable and good feeling infested the very particles of gas called air, after ten minutes this is what Hector believed. Smith, who was he? The name that had sounded his knell scrabbled behind the boxes like a rat in a maze and a mislaid concept in the mind. It was Craigie who found it.

"Sir Hector, you must be wondering, or perhaps have forgotten the intrusion of a lad called Smith into your recent affairs. He has a silver-tongue and you like to talk. Murchison suggested we employ a decoy. He thought the mystery of the thing might whet your appetite. Do you recall Murchison? He was sacked from your ship in Buenos Aires?"

"He left it in disgrace."

"That maybe, but he can spin a few yarns about its captain."

Was this the loot then? Some cock-and-bull about a captain with a temper, adrift and dangerous?

"He couldn't possibly have anything on me because my slate is clean. And I can tell you how I know this. For six weeks at sea he blubbered, swore, slacked, scratched... yes. Can you picture a grown man scratching his crewmates? He managed all the symptoms of derangement then to top it off embarked on a violent drinking spree and tried to incinerate the vessel. In other words, the deviance of his own behaviour proved so engrossing it screened out from his cloudy perception any tribulations on the part of others, including officers and cats. You see he had not the foggiest idea of what was happening around him. And he was at the very bottom, as far from the bridge as heaven from hell. That was my haunt, up top."

The possibility of being beholden to a leech as repellently disgusting as Murchison seemed just half as nasty as a clean slice in the back with a clean blade. How could Archie, the suave purveyor of chronometers and theodolites have tripped into the Murchison snare? Fallen on hard times?

Hector, who held the armchair, erupted from it. The fading puffs of good mixed with little curls of smoke until both became plain air. He couldn't see much of the outside through the fuzzy curtains. Archie had urged Sir Hector to remain calm, as friendly as before, because any malice he thought he could detect was not malice, merely speculation grounded on suspicion.

"Smith made this out as a matter of business," began Hector, impatiently. "And since you and I have dealt reasonably in the past, lets sort this out like.... businessmen. I'm sorry to say most of our instruments you provided for our last jaunt, sank under the ice."

"I'm glad that all of your men escaped, however", said Archie, graciously. "But even so, I'm not sure you have reimbursed me for all the equipment provided for the meteorologists." Archie sidled to the musty rear of the room. Hector withheld comment until the noise of boxes being lifted and replaced had decreased, and then he called:

"As it so happens he preferred his own home-made devices, our meteorologist." His powerful voice he’d no difficulty carrying to whichever nether part of the dwelling. " If you have any outstanding accounts, Mackintosh can sort it out at the office."

Hector smoked away and peeked through the sheer-fuzz of curtaining. At last, Archibald Craigie, Scottish ham, busying himself behind a stack, bounced on his toes to the fore like a premier danseur, flourishing a paper, truly the cats’ cream.

"Now Sir Hector," he said, nervously, "this is what I have for you."

Hector looked every inch the sea-wolf Murchison had made him out to be, and thus rendered, with a too garish flair, his mere impatience began 'throbbing like a great wave.' A dread of physical assault stole over Craigie, an awry perception which owed as much to imagination as any of Carpenter's overblown inventions. In truth, Sir Hector was peeved. He would rename" the Smith Show", "Payment in arrears” and recast the villains as bookkeepers.

Murchison had oozed into the room where he towered as motionless as the crates, although snivelling constantly.

"Well, let me see it. I'm not likely to hotfoot with it, am I,” Hector said.

Archie handed over the single sheet of stationery, poured himself a mug of beer and sank into his chair leaving Hector to ponder.

The blue-ish ink was wan, not fresh. A letter. A fragment. Creased and difficult to read.

' ... future is not alone in bearing down upon my mind these days for I have our separations to endure, my dearest Amaranthus, my fluffed-up chicken, my heartsease. Again the evenings seem lonely and wasted, the mornings cheerless, afternoons lazily ripe for conversation, as bereft of music as the tolling bell without your sweet piping to brighten them. Will it not always be thus? Now listen -

You have heard that Carpenter is intending to push south next Antarctic summer, as a snub to me and the scientific community. Everyone refuses to back his ludicrous plans, so he is forced to act the private citizen and raise funds by whatever means, fair or foul. And then he anticipates basing his expedition at the 'Deliverer' hut, by my good grace still standing and supplied. I am very annoyed by his devious methods and by his not consulting anyone. I think he will find it well nigh impossible to make any headway on the ice - his health being a question mark. Heart trouble. Nonetheless, I will ask him to foreswear his intended use of my McMurdo Sound as a jumping-off point and to land further west. I am uncertain as to the worth of any promise, however, he has broken many in the past. And the terrain, and the weather may compel him to renege. The RGS{Sir Swithem} believe the Pole is for a gentleman to claim, thereforeH.A.C. is most definitely unsuited.

Think of me and love me my darling

Ama. As I most assuredly do you,


The conspirators drooled. To an outsider this was a letter but to an insider it was dynamite, of a personal kind. The compact, neat, expansive handwriting daubed both sides of the page like swishing ski and for a second Hectors memory reproduced the gliding hand in human form, its author, his backside in fact, as he led a trio doggedly across the unmarked whiteness, trowelling with ski. Now, whenever Hector thought of Richard Hunt, if ever, it was as a corpse preserved for all time in the natural refrigerator at the bottom of the Earth.

Archie waited for the veil to clear from Hectors fixed but vacant stare before applying the screws. Fifteen years ago the breaking of 'the promise' had been much publicized and Hector had never shirked from an airing of contempt for the Royal Society and its lackey Captain Hunt, amongst friends that is. To the hero-seeking public the two had been a self-effacing duo of flag-planters in league with the king, one forever congratulating the other.

"What do you think, Sir Hector? Even Smith was not entirely aware of the contents of the document but then it requires that one be in the know to fully appreciate its implications? Of course, I can only assume a consistent interest on your own behalf. Perhaps with Hunts sad death, your interest has waned. It is authentic, I assure you, if someone were to manufacture such a letter, I'm sure the phrasing, content etc. would be more clear-cut. Forgers are not great literary craftsman. You can see it was written quickly by a distressed hand, a man suffering the pangs of indecision." Archie knew what a sensitive chap Hector was. He knew the debacle of the broken promise had marred his reputation. He knew much about the fraternity of polar expeditioners because for years he had supplied scientific instruments for many of them, at a discount. He also knew how the flakes of ice seemed to chill their blood so that even cold old England became too hot and they yearned to get away once more.

Hector gave back the sheet to Archie, faced the bay-window again, and said:

''What price are you asking?"

Then Murchison came nearer and blurted: "Five thousand".

Hector said nothing. His arms were folded high on his chest like a barrier.

Murchison growled again: "Five thousand! Didn't you hear me?"

Hector, twisting his neck to face Archie alone, asked: "How did you come by this?"

Archie thought it measly to have to confess he found it screwed up in a pouch with some second-hand binoculars so decided to try the traditional, "From a reliable source," but then he couldn't add, "whom I have had dealings with on other occasions,” because he had not actually tried to blackmail anyone before. Whereas Murchison had. Murchison said:

"Well if you don't want it we will sell it to the newspapers. Might that not interfere with your plans, me old captain?''

Hector wondered if it would. The enormity of Hunts tragedy had hypnotized the public. Public sympathy had deluged the families of the deceased, alternately pumping Hectors own foolhardiness and self-glorification into a frothing unplumbed sewer of bad taste. Could one page of a private letter purify the disgorging mess? Amaranthus?

"It might or it might not," Hector said, stiffly." I will need time to think about this. You will hear from me. Archie, its rather a personal piece, you agree?'' Before he could, Murchison sniffed,

"Press love that sort of stuff. Don't wait too long, Captain” Murchison was like a stuffed gorilla.

Chapter Three

Critique this work

Click on the book to leave a comment about this work

All Authors (hi-speed)    All Authors (dialup)    Children    Columnists    Contact    Drama    Fiction    Grammar    Guest Book    Home    Humour    Links    Narratives    Novels    Poems    Published Authors    Reviews    September 11    Short Stories    Teen Writings    Submission Guidelines

Be sure to have a look at our Discussion Forum today to see what's
happening on The World's Favourite Literary Website.