The sun’s rays were piercing dominantly through the relatively thin and outworn grey curtains of the small eastern window. John reluctantly opened his eyes to realise once again that he had experienced yet another of his regular nightmares. He had become so abnormally accustomed to them, that he no longer felt the need to awake flabbergasted. It was always the same series of events repeating themselves in his head in a vicious cycle; the army registration, the training, the recruitment, the torture and most importantly Irene’s death.
He rubbed his eyes and felt the excruciating pain coming from his left leg that, unlike the nightmares, always seemed to surprise him. He stood up and while still sitting on the sunken old mattress, he reached for the second drawer of his nightstand.
‘I might as well smoke it now’ he thought and grabbed his last and only cigar, whose name he had long forgotten. It was a gift from Lieutenant Binx, the man to whom he owed simultaneously everything and nothing. He first met him after two months in training in 1809, when the Lieutenant had hand picked him for the highly secretive spy mission to infiltrate and report on Napoleon’s army. John had always suspected that he had had a gift at going on unnoticed but he had believed that it was due to the circumstances. As the fifth child and the fourth son of a baronet, he was always disregarded. His mother died at childbirth, when he had barely reached the age of four, forever impacting the life within his household. All of his siblings possessed a characteristic that labelled them special, even the one that was born stillborn, but never John. He was always a forgettable face amongst intriguing figures, partially due to his mediocrity at everything, or so he thought. During that late summer afternoon, Lieutenant Binx made John, for the first time in his life, feel exceptional. He could still recall the Lieutenant’s exact words when he described his ability, ‘it is indeed your true calling, son’. John, however, knew that it was also due to his French heritage, as his grandmother grew up in a small, nearly unknown, village near Paris.
He puffed his cigar a couple of times and he could only wonder just how much he loved the smell and the feeling of smoking it.
“But on a petty accountant’s salary, I can barely even afford food, let alone cigars” he mumbled and put it off. It had been three years since the war had come to an end and for three years he had been vacillating between jobs. His brothers were always asserting that it was because of his crippled leg but never had they suggested they assisted him financially. John was aware that they considered him a fool. They could never know of his achievements during the war; no one could and hence, he always felt the loneliness and depression lurking within the corners of his subconscious.
‘Except Irene’ he thought while forming a mild smile on his lips, only for it to immediately fade away as the horrifying memories once again reminded him of her death. Subsequently, John quickly reached for his plain cane to stand up and wash his face with the relatively clean water from the bowl on his nightstand. With every splash the images were gradually retreating until a knock on the door pulled him completely away from his thoughts. At that point he looked down on his body to assess whether his attire was appropriate for anyone else to see, only to realise that he was fully dressed in yesterday’s clothes. “Typical” he mumbled as he remembered the night before. “Coming” he said with a clear voice. At the door he was greeted by his sweet landlady, Mrs Potts. Her cheeks were flushed and her recently greyed curls did a poor job hiding it.
“Oh Mr Caverish—” she breathed fast as if she had ascended the main hall stairs faster than usual. “It completely slipped my mind yesterday” she cleared her throat “oh dear I am so ashamed, your sister came by yesterday, indeed such a lovely girl, with her beautiful colourful dresses and I personally believed that her dressmaker—” “Mrs Potts!” said John with a slightly elevated voice as he was definitely in no mood to discuss his, far from beloved, sister’s dressmaker.
“Right dear, she left me this” she said while handing him over a small perfectly folded letter. “She did mention that it is good news” she added with a smile “Oh and on the matter of good news, breakfast is ready” she said and eloquently started descending the stairs.
John hastily walked towards his small square table, that he was proud enough to call office, and grabbed his letter opener.
You will be, quite I am sure, delighted to learn that your only sister has indeed landed herself a husband, the Duke of Randesday. The wedding shall take place in a fortnight in Scotland.
Margaret Eloise Caverish
John’s lips formed a denouncing smile.
‘Of course she found herself a husband, a rich and certainly quite old’ he thought. His older, by a year, sister was always smart and thorough with her choices. Many considered her a spinster, as she was still unwed at the age of twenty eight, but the Duke of Randesday, a man of seventy four years and with no heir to his title, might have been nothing but relieved to find out she had accepted his offer.
He crumpled the rose scented paper and threw it in the west corner of his small apartment. He gazed at the apparent mess on his office desk containing the receipts and documents he was hired to inspect. He cursed under his breath for he had still hours of work ahead of him and a deadline to make.
‘How does a highly trained spy can only find a job as an insignificant accountant?’ he asked himself. He had become fairly skilled at calculus and algebra as they were the main tools for the encrypted codes he used during his spy missions. He recalled Irene saying ‘You can always trust the numbers; they are what they are and nothing more’. She was his mentor; the only woman that had been allowed in the program. She always gloated that it was due to her rare talents, but John always suspected it was due to her family. With her father and brother both in high military ranks and her late husband killed in action she had formed a solid argument on her behalf.
When Irene deemed him professionally ready and worthy, they were assigned to a coastal army camp at Southwick. She went as a cantinière married to a recently perished non-existent soldier, selling drinks and food to the troops and John as a stableman in charge of the cavalry horses. She used to instruct him to repeat the phrase ‘A new day marks a new beginning’ every morning as she believed it gave strength and boosted the moral. As a team they were thorough, vigilant and always efficient, until one October afternoon in 1815. John never found out how they were discovered. He was tortured for some days and for others he just listened to Irene’s screams through the thin walls. He endured many injuries, physical and psychological, some of which still impact him to this day. He loved Irene, he felt as if he always had. He loved the way she would bite her lower lip when she was confused or how she would play with the curls of her hair when she thought no one was looking. He knew she was recently widowed but he still could not help the feeling of lust he experienced every time he came across her. Despite that, he had never gathered enough courage to confess his feelings to her and he regretted it ever more as he feared that his end was near. It took John three weeks to find an opportunity to free himself from the well tied bonds, at the expense of his thumbs, thanks to a young and naïve soldier’s inability to resist alcoholic liquor. By the time he was up and limping, his search for Irene began. It didn’t take him more than half an hour to locate the cell in which she was held. He found her on the ground with clothes torn and one hand still tied to one of the handcuffs attached to the brick wall. He held her in his arms and felt the piercing cold excreted from her skin. Not wanting to comprehend the obvious he whispered: “I love you” with tears forming in the corner of his eyes “I love you” he repeated and touched her silk like hair “I love you” he mumbled for the final time and gave her a soft kiss on the lips. This was the last time he saw her. He could never have survived carrying her body, not with a significantly injured leg. Her body after that was never found.
John shook his head trying to get the images out of his mind and glanced at his pocket watch that was lying on the corner of the office table. ‘It is time to go to work’ he thought, sighed and stood up. He put all the paper work orderly in his satchel, grabbed his top hat and glimpsed at the full-length mirror.
“A new day marks a new beginning” he said to himself and inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, smiled slightly and walked out the door.
By Panagiota Kitsopoulos from Germany