This is the germ of an idea I’ve had for a little while now for the start of an epistolary novella – it may not come to anything, who knows, but I’m enjoying the new avenues into the realms of the sinister and the gothic which it’s opening up to me. Those who have been following my research into my Grandad’s collection of letters on Instagram will of course understand why letters have been very much on my mind lately…
In a London attic under accumulations of dust lies a strong box of black leather with an old belt fastened around it. It is clammed shut until, at the loosening of the belt, its hinges complain and relent. Inside is a yellowed hush of papers, each one rubbing its secrets against its neighbour like gossips. There are different grades of paper, some laid, some finer; some blotted with unidentifiable marks and stains; some exhibiting their neat inky authorities. There are the sharp, incisive strokes of many distinct hands leaping out from the ordered piles, and a thick musty smell like dead leaves and decay pervades the whole.
The following letter rests on the top, is folded into a triad of plains, and shows a thin, spidery scrawl. It bears no postal mark or stamp as it was never sent and was never sealed.
Corbie Lane, London, 1875
For whomever may find this box after I have passed away, I have set down certain particulars here relating to the various mysteries contained within. Please know before perusing further that, the matters disclosed within these letters being deemed weighty and of national, indeed international, importance, I have been unable to fix upon a course of action as to what it were best to do with them. This is the sum and truth of why you find them still shut up in the box, and also why no knowledge of their contents will otherwise have reached your ears. My reasons for this handing on of the problem I will discover to you now.
I have worked for Beckett’s Bank as first a junior and later a senior clerk for over forty years, in fact the better part of my adult working life. Though respectable, my career has not been marked by any peculiar distinctions, but one might say has instead been characterised by a steady kind of orderliness of habit, which has made this particular affair the more especially painful, for it works continually upon my mind. A year ago, in pursuance of my occupation and quite by accident, this box came
to me into my possession. No, you see, that is not quite correct, and I have vowed to myself to be entirely truthful here. Things have become so very muddled in my mind of late, and I find that my gift of recall is not what it was – or rather I seem to remember things other than perhaps they have been. To be plain, the decision had been made – and I was the clerk charged with enacting it – to break open and search sundry trunks and cases which had lain for some years, abandoned unclaimed, in the possession of the bank. The majority of these boxes dated in the main from its former incarnation as the Bengali Trade and Savings Bank until this was dissolved in 1835. It is entirely by chance that this particular box came to me , and yet it feels as though I was meant to have it rather than another clerk. Indeed, it could have been any of my fellows at the Bank charged with searching through its contents, and sometimes I wish that – but there again, I advance ahead of my point.
On opening this especial box and on reading the first few letters within I was by no means immediately impressed by their worth, disordered as they were and not seeming to warrant any peculiar interest. Yet, I was bidden to uncover whether any documents of legal import such as deeds or wills, bonds or memoranda of sale, might be contained within, so I set about my task. I soon found that the letters included a vast range, both in the way of dates and authors, and were severally distinguished by an array of franking marks and seals, none of which gave me immediate pause. No forebodings arose to
warn counsel me against further perusal nor was I by any devices prepared for the hold these papers would soon have over my mind. For the easier exercise of the task, I took the box home with me – and indeed this was my first and gravest error – and have since spent many evenings on returning from my place of work arranging and assembling the letters into a logical order, as you will find them now. Only upon extended reading did I realise the value and singularity of the documents herein and was able to form some idea of the events they describe as a whole. The picture as it began to form in my mind was at once tantalising and seductive – to think that I, a humble clerk, should read of events otherwise secret and suppressed –– But here, again, I advance ahead of my point. My interest being roused to such a pitch, I have conducted my own independent researches into the matters contained here, and provided my own commentary on documents where I have been able to supply a deficiency of information. I think it right that this interference be understood from the outset.
You may reproach me when you have yourself embarked on a reading of these letters for not taking them immediately to an Authority who could more properly judge their value and the correct disposition of them, but I have been paralysed by a kind of indecision as to the various evils that may issue from their becoming known – and also as to their being placed into the right hands. As certain of the letters presented themselves to me as being of great value and significance, at first I thought to apply to my superior at the bank for his advice on the matter, but I was frustrated in this plan, for shortly after the box came into my hands he informed me of his notice at the bank. I told myself that it would be best to await his successor
but I think that I was relieved at this turn of events. The time between his leaving and his successor being appointed being an interregnum of some length, I made a sort of habit of keeping the letters a secret until at length I found, when my new superior was appointed, that I could not bear to share give up the box and have remained, very uneasily, silent as to its existence, until now.
My conscience has been wracked daily, but the letters became, you see, a kind of creeping obsession with me, such that I spent long evenings after work, without food, poring over their inked reports. So marked was my increasing fascination that the daily journey into work and the duties of a clerk – the tedious copying and record-keeping – became a torment to me, and I would begin to think up excuses to leave a little early. On arriving home, all my thoughts were of the box and I found that I could not rest easy in my mind until I had its contents in my hands, and could take up the tale of their events. I became slipshod in my dress and habits, foregoing sleep in order to continue my examinations into the letters’ story. After a matter of months, my moods and even my manner of going about my business at the bank were so indifferent and changed as to give rise to concern among my colleagues, so that I was invited to an interview with my new superior. He was at pains to point out various small errata which had stolen into my copying and notations and to offer just rebuke, seeking with his probing questions to learn the provocation for the failures in my diligence. I
would could not tell him, being by that point so unmanned by my fixation with the box.
I am ashamed to relate more, but in order for you to understand all –– My lodgings in Corbie Lane are very humble, with but a few rooms, as is fitting for a clerk, but I may tell you with some wonder and alarm that the box worked such a hold upon me that I had soon advanced it from the parlour, thence to the landing, and finally to the foot of my bed, where it has – until recently – remained. Most evenings I have spent before my bedroom fireplace with the box’s contents spread about me, worrying at my lip as I read and grasped their evil contents. The question of what to do with them was so urgent, and only grew in the reading. Sometimes I felt indeed that the box were watching me, and I would look at it askance before turning down my lamp, curious as to the pull it seemed to exert from its placement at the end of my bed. At other times, I thought I saw something out the corner of my eye move atop it in the dimness of the light, but always on closer examination I
thought found it to be a trick. Daily, such happenings grew and my mind, being thus worked upon, finally found a corollary in my physical state. My frame seemed to wither into sickness and, even as the box grew in influence over me, I myself was wasting away by the constant action of such vicious thoughts as the letters stirred up in me. My health has never been very strong and has now deteriorated to the extent that I have now determined to try to shut up the box. I will place it in my attic where it will be out of sight and, I hope, out of mind.
You may with some justification accuse me of a dereliction of duty in keeping these matters to myself, believing yourself that it is right and proper that their events be uncovered before the general populace; but perhaps you will also find that you dread their discovery, the effects of which might yet threaten those still living. The consciousness of such a jeopardy has so worried and frayed my nerves that I have taken to double bolting my door at night because of the fears my
concealing harbouring the box have engendered.
All of these events occurring together, I have perhaps been guilty of several errors and weaknesses of judgement. You may indeed feel it to be a proof of a certain feebleness of mind to have done nothing to reveal, and still more to have suppressed these documents, but it has been done with every good intention. My strength is now so defeated that it will only allow me to entrust them to you, whomever you may be, lest eternal silence collude in the wrongs to which they bear witness.
I beg that you reflect with due deliberation before acting upon the enclosed.
Your humble Servt,
After his own poor recommendation of his character, you may not be inclined to trust Mr Wragg’s accuracy in the correct ordering of the documents which follow. I can assure you that to the best of our knowledge the chronology is correct and Mr Wragg’s interpolations both useful and sincere. Where documentary evidence has been added by him, these insertions are often preceded by his own justifications and may be known by the presence of his initials, W.W.
(It is known now that William Wragg died a matter of weeks after writing this note and before his own mother, his health having failed at last.)