Quiet corners were difficult to find in a hotel which was full to overflowing, but the management had opened up all public rooms in an attempt to accommodate people in some degree of comfort. Waiters were doing brisk service to and from the bar, while some judicious tipping secured us a table for dinner an hour hence. In the meantime, leaving my companion with his whisky, I went to find Alice.
What she thought of my chance encounter I do not know – possibly not very much, since the world of shipping had ensured me many male acquaintances – but it would have surprised her to know the details of my former relationship with the man I was going downstairs to meet.
Not that I had any intention of revealing those details – indeed, keeping them secret had cost me a great deal over the years. For my own benefit whilst married, of course; but I had often wondered how my companion, always a friend to the rich and famous, would have fared had the matter become public knowledge.
He was probably less concerned now than he would have been, but there was still his wife to think of, the precious and inimitable Florence. She’d had her own lovers – in the courtly, romantic sense, of course. She was worshipped for her delicate beauty and worked hard at preserving the illusion of purity. Not for her the sweaty conflict of human congress, nor even, as far as I was aware, the passionless contact of the marital bed. We never met but I always thought of her as being perfectly untouchable, rather like a Burne-Jones portrait in the flesh: regular, faultless, and dull.
She was twenty when they married, but he had known her for almost two years. Oddly enough, I was also eighteen when he and I first met, and, except in the vital matter of colouring, some might say that Florence and I were not unalike. Both tall, both reed-thin, and although she had the exquisite profile – which I certainly could not boast – I had the kind of curly red hair that Burne-Jones might have died for. The kind that always attracted attention, the kind her husband admired so much.
When I thought of the intensity I had shared with him, I wondered how on earth he could have married her. But although dear Florence had no money, she did have beauty, and – they tell me – the kind of fey charm that seemed to captivate romantic young men. Amongst her suitors at home in Dublin she’d even had young Oscar Wilde begging for her hand.
Anyway, she turned Oscar down. Perhaps his wit threatened to eclipse her beauty, I don’t know, but she chose instead an older, more robust-looking man with some intriguing social and professional prospects. He was captivated by her looks, and because he was over thirty and it was about time he married, and because he could suddenly afford to, he asked her to be his wife. At least, that’s what he told me. Some years later, when the mistakes were destroying him and the fabric of his life was falling into shreds, he packed a bag, stepped on a train and escaped to Whitby.
More than two decades had passed since then. When I boarded the train in London, I would have said my perceptions were normal, yet in the last hour time had become distorted, making the distant past more real than the present. Until I rejoined my companion, that is, and found myself disconcerted afresh by his appearance.
As I took a seat beside him, he raised his glass and made some heavy-handed comment about the weather, to the effect that it had managed, extraordinarily, to bring us together once again. I felt that twice in twenty-one years hardly constituted a coincidence, and said so. He tried another tack. ‘I heard you mention Whitby – do you still live there?’
His enquiry prompted a taut smile. ‘Heavens, no – my husband and I lived mostly in London.’ At his quick glance I shook my head. ‘No, we’re not neighbours – that is, if you’re still in Chelsea? My home’s in Hampstead, overlooking the Heath.’
He chuckled then with surprise. At first I imagined it was at the distance I’d travelled in life – after all, I’d come a long way since last we met – but then he recovered himself and said ruefully: ‘Obviously, you know much more of me…’
‘Difficult not to – or rather it was, once upon a time. There was always something in the London papers.’ That was perhaps an exaggeration, but there had been enough in theatre notices and society columns over the years to keep me abreast of his activities. In hopes of discovering more, I managed to force out the words convention demanded, even though they almost choked me. ‘I was sorry,’ I lied, ‘to read about Irving, last year.’
His face became still; his voice heavy with sadness. ‘Yes, it was a great shock – although he hadn’t been well for some time… Ironically, it was his farewell tour – we were in Bradford, at the Theatre Royal – he was playing Becket.’ Looking into his glass, he said quietly: ‘I still miss him. We were friends, you know, for over thirty years.’
Exasperated by his loyalty, I had to turn my glance away. With a sigh that just might have passed for one of regret, I said: ‘Yes, great friends, I remember. But how he used you!’
He bridled a little at that. ‘Irving was a great man – the greatest actor of his generation. I was privileged to be close to him.’
‘He was certainly a great actor! And you served him well,’ I agreed sardonically. ‘But what did he ever give you, for heaven’s sake, other than the chance to watch him nightly from the wings?’
‘We were friends,’ he declared, turning his shoulder. Clearly, the subject was still a painful one.
I found myself wondering if Irving’s flamboyant style had landed them both in trouble; but when he faced me again he was wearing a determined smile. ‘Let us talk of other things. You, for instance. You seem to know all about my life, while I know nothing of yours. What is it that takes you back to Whitby?’
There was such irony present – in the fact of our meeting and its circumstance, even in his sudden curiosity – that I wanted, quite desperately, to laugh. Mad, hysterical laughter was bubbling away inside me, and I was almost afraid of what might happen next. I considered making some excuse and returning to my room. There, at least, I could pretend that nothing mattered. It was over, done with, all in the past; I was a middle-aged woman, a wealthy widow; no longer an impulsive and impressionable girl. And my adversary was no longer young, but approaching sixty. So why did I tremble when I looked at him? Why did those grey eyes continue to remind me of things best forgotten?
The fourth and final excerpt from Moon Rising will be posted 15th October 2015. The full ebook will be available on 31st October 2015