A Cruel Mischief

Can Will and Isobel prevent events of the past from influencing the present and future?

Dublin, Ireland, October 1885. The fragile peace within the Fitzgerald family is threatened when Dr Jacob Smythe becomes one of Will’s patients, angering his mother. But in attending to the elderly gentleman’s needs, Will inadvertently reunites Sarah with an old adversary and Isobel discovers she and Dr Smythe have an unexpected and tragic connection.

When Alfie receives a card on his twenty-ninth birthday, the recognisable handwriting and cryptic message shatters his hard-won personal contentment. Has a figure hoped long gone from his life returned to Dublin to wreak a cruel mischief on all those who banished him? Is Alfie’s ambition of becoming a doctor about to be derailed when he has less than a year left at Trinity College?

Read an excerpt from Chapter One…

Dublin, Ireland. Saturday, 31st October 1885.

Hearing voices in the hall, Will put his cup of coffee down and exchanged a puzzled glance with Isobel. His father, due for his weekly visit to the children, wasn’t expected at number 30 for another half an hour. The door opened and Zaineb, one of their house-parlourmaids, showed Alfie into the breakfast room. It was Alfie’s twenty-ninth birthday but Isobel’s elder brother looked anything but happy as the door was closed behind him.

“Happy birthday,” he began as Alfie dropped an envelope onto the table between him and Isobel. “We were to come to number 55 later.”

“Read that.”

Will picked up the envelope. It was postmarked Dublin and he didn’t recognise the handwriting. He pulled out a greeting card with a caricature of a doctor on the front. Alfie had been awarded the degrees of M.B., B.Ch. and B.A.O. – Bachelor in Medicine, Bachelor in Surgery and Bachelor in Obstetrics – by Trinity College and he was researching and writing his M.D. – Doctor in Medicine – thesis on typhoid fever for submission the following year.

Opening the card, Will’s jaw dropped as he read the message and he gaped momentarily at Alfie before reading it again.

Almost over

“What’s the matter?” Isobel demanded.

“It’s from David Powell,” he explained, passing the card to her. “But his handwriting is only in the card, not on the envelope.”

“Almost over,” she murmured. “What is almost over? Alfie’s time at Trinity College? David’s exile?”

There was a long silence as they hoped the latter was not the case and Will took the card from her and returned it to the envelope. According to the postmark, the card had been posted in Dublin the previous day.

“Who else has seen this?” he asked Alfie, handing the envelope to him.

“No-one. I met Gorman in the hall with the post and, like a child, I opened my birthday cards there and then. This one went straight into my pocket.”

“Have you received any other communications which you suspect may have come from David?”

“No, nothing. Not even when I was awarded my M.B. and I did half expect to receive a letter or telegram then.”

“Let’s not cause any undue alarm, especially to your mother, and don’t allow it to spoil your birthday. It’s your favourite roast for dinner this evening, isn’t it?”

Alfie nodded. “Roast pork.” Sliding the envelope into his morning coat’s inside pocket, he sighed. “Why now? David could have sent me a card on my past two birthdays. Should we ask Gordon if he has heard anything of David?”

Will pulled a face. He didn’t want to go anywhere near Gordon Higginson who had orchestrated David’s exile following his wife Margaret’s rape. Since David had insisted on signing over number 1 Ely Place Upper to him and not Gordon, Will had all but made an enemy of Margaret’s barrister brother-in-law. Only Gordon and his clerk knew where David had chosen to go to or at least where he claimed to have chosen to go to.

Will and Gordon had witnessed David departing for Holyhead in Wales on the express night service from Dublin’s North Wall Quay but David may well have sold his onward travel documents and Will had forced a nagging doubt that David had not left the United Kingdom at all to the back of his mind. After two years that doubt was at the forefront again. For all he knew, David could be back in Ireland working under an assumed name. David was an excellent doctor, he needed to make a living, and he would not want his medical skills to go to waste.

“Alfie, Gordon was made aware David preferred men to women. What he was never told was that David had thrown you over in order to marry Margaret.”

“Margaret never told Gordon about me?” Alfie asked incredulously.

“No,” Isobel replied. “And she promised me she never would.”

“Should I burn this, then?” Alfie added, indicating the envelope in his coat pocket.

“No, give it to me and I’ll speak to James about it.” Will held out his hand and Alfie extracted the envelope and passed it to him. “Thank you. As you’ve said many times before, you said goodbye to David a long time ago. Finish and submit your thesis and be awarded your M.D. Try and put this out of your mind and enjoy your birthday. How are you spending the day?”

“I’m meeting Kenneth and Imogen and we’re having a leisurely luncheon out somewhere.”

“Enjoy yourselves and give our regards to Imogen and Kenneth.”

Alfie nodded. “I’ll see you both this evening. No, don’t get up, Will. I’ll see myself out.”

He left the room and a moment or two later Will heard the front door close.

“When Father arrives, you and I will go to number 55. Please keep your mother and Miles occupied while I speak to James. I know I sound like a coward but I’d rather not get Gordon involved. This may be nothing,” he said, holding up the envelope. “For all we know, David could be in Australia and posted the card to someone in Dublin to post on to Alfie.”

“But why?” Isobel asked. “It’s been two years.”

“Perhaps David is finally settled somewhere and…” Will tailed off and shrugged. “I honestly don’t know.”

The front doorbell rang just after nine o’clock and Will admitted his father to the hall.

“Good morning,” he said, taking his father’s hat and hanging it on the stand. “The children are looking forward to seeing you.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing them. It’s been a most trying week.”

“Oh?”

“It’s Jacob Smythe,” his father continued and Will clenched his fists. He would never forgive the elderly doctor for regularly prescribing a laudanum tincture to his mother which had resulted in her becoming dependent upon it. “Senile decay is setting in at a rapid rate. He is becoming not just a hazard to himself but to others at the Journal and I can’t allow it to continue but I simply don’t know what to do with him.”

“I know he was never married but has he no brothers or sisters?”

“No, but as I told you, he has fathered at least four children with his patients. However, I doubt very much if they are aware Jacob is their father so there is no-one to care for him now.”

“Is he registered with a doctor?” Will asked the question despite knowing the answer would be no as Dr Smythe had always been a law unto himself.

“When ill, Jacob always treated himself – probably with whatever tonic he could find or put together. But now his mental capacity is declining at an alarming rate and he needs…” His father tailed off and Will grimaced.

“Bring him to the practice house on Monday.”

“Thank you, Will.”

“Does he have many servants in his home?”

“Two – a husband and wife – the Macallisters – a butler-come-valet and a cook-housekeeper. I went to see them yesterday afternoon and Macallister told me that quite often Jacob doesn’t return home until all hours. He didn’t think anything of it while Jacob was still practising medicine but it continued even after I took Jacob on at the Journal. It’s his and my belief that Jacob leaves the Journal offices and wanders the streets of Dublin until he remembers where he lives.”

In his final days, his father’s best friend Duncan Simpson experienced brief periods of lucidity but the surgeon’s once brilliant brain had been destroyed by syphilis. Will would never forget how his own best friend Fred Simpson had pursued a naked Duncan from Mercer’s Hospital to Crampton Quay and from there downstream along the River Liffey to where Will and Isobel had found them struggling on City Quay. It was natural for an ageing body to decay but since then the thought of ever losing his mental faculties for whatever reason filled him with dread.

“Where on Rutland Square does Dr Smythe live?” he asked.

“Next door to Diana Wingfield at number 8. His two servants are well on in years. They can’t be expected to look after his every need.”

“Can he afford to engage a nurse?”

“He assures me he has some savings. I shall determine how much.”

“Good. We’ll discuss it all on Monday. I’ll tell Eva to expect you both.”

“Thank you, Will.”

In the nursery at the top of the house, seven-year-old John and four-year-old twins Ben and Belle laughed in delight on seeing their grandfather. As Will followed his father into the room, Isobel gave him an inquiring glance. She was wondering why it had taken them so long to come upstairs but he shook his head as Belle ran to him to be picked up and kissed, silently telling Isobel he would explain later.

“Are you going to tell us a story?” John asked his grandfather. “Please tell us a story?”

“Would you like a story – perhaps two?” Will’s father asked the twins who nodded vigorously. “Then, two stories it is. Sit yourselves down on the rug while I sit here at the table.”

Will gave Belle a noisy kiss before putting her down and he smiled as she ran after John and Ben to the red rug and sat in between them clutching her rag doll.

“Behave for your grandfather,” Isobel instructed the children before Will followed her out onto the landing. “What took so long?” she asked him immediately.

“It’s Dr Smythe. He has senile decay and Father is bringing him to the practice house on Monday so I can assess him.”

“You’re going to take Dr Smythe on as a patient?”

“It looks like it. Apart from the children he fathered with his patients, he has no relatives and if his mental faculties are as bad as Father says then a nurse must be found for him. But that is for Monday. Today, I must speak to James about David then we’ll have a very small luncheon and spend the afternoon together.”

Except for family occasions and emergencies, they spent every Saturday afternoon together drinking excellent coffee in a café on Grafton Street before browsing the shops or visiting the National Gallery.

They walked around the garden in the centre of Fitzwilliam Square to number 55. Gorman the butler admitted them to the house and Will was relieved to see his step-father-in-law coming down the stairs with a newspaper tucked under his arm.

“James, may I have a word with you in private?”

“Yes, of course, come upstairs,” the solicitor replied then nodded a greeting to Isobel. “Your mother and Miles are in the morning room.”

While Isobel went with Gorman along the hall, Will followed James upstairs to the first floor and into the library, created when the large drawing room was divided in two. He closed the door then pulled the envelope out of the inside pocket of his frock coat.

“Alfie received this in the post this morning,” he said and passed the envelope to James.

The solicitor dropped his newspaper onto the desk before examining the envelope, pulling out the card and opening it.

“‘Almost over’,” he read with a puzzled frown.

“It’s from David Powell,” Will explained and James exhaled a long sigh. “I don’t know who the handwriting on the envelope belongs to but the handwriting in the card is most certainly David’s.”

“How is Alfie?”

“At a complete loss and quite shaken to have received this after two years of nothing.”

“Almost over,” James repeated. “What on earth could it mean? Who knows about this card?”

“Alfie, Isobel, myself and now yourself.”

“Let’s keep it that way for the present.”

“Alfie suggested burning the card but I said no.”

“Good. I’ll keep it if you don’t mind and I’ll put it in the safe in my office on Monday. If Alfie receives more communications from David then, I’m afraid, we shall have to inform Gordon.”

“Yes,” he reluctantly agreed.

“When did you last see Gordon?”

“When Isobel and I called on Margaret and her mother at number 37 a few months ago. Unfortunately, both he and Elizabeth were there. We drank tea, exchanged awkward small talk and they left as soon as was politely possible – after approximately half an hour.”

“Gordon will always bear you a grudge for being the owner of number 1 Ely Place Upper – no matter how inadvertently it came about.”

“Yes, and that is why I came to you and not Gordon.”

“How does Alfie seem to you?” James asked putting the envelope in the top desk drawer before locking the drawer and putting the key in his trouser pocket. “When he was awarded his M.B. I expected at least part of the great weight to be lifted off his shoulders but he seems to have retreated inside himself which worries me.”

“After Alfie and David were attacked, they stopped socialising together and they would only meet at David’s rooms on Westland Row. Then, Alfie lost David when David married Margaret. Alfie does have a good friend in Kenneth Fisher but I’ve noticed Alfie is always wary of being seen alone with him, even though it’s well known Kenneth only has eyes for his fiancée, Imogen.”

“Alfie is lucky to have Kenneth as a friend and confidante.”

“Yes, he is but today, Imogen is accompanying the two of them to luncheon. Alfie is terrified any interaction between him and another man – no matter how innocent it is – can now, thanks to the Criminal Law Amendment Act, be interpreted as and prosecuted as ‘gross indecency’.”

James nodded. “I despise the vagueness of the language in Mr Labouchere’s Amendment to the Act.”

“Was the vagueness in section 11 deliberate, do you think?” he asked.

James made a helpless gesture with his hands before grinning suddenly and slapping Will on the shoulder. “This evening, Alfie will have his family around him, his favourite foods and some fine wines. We’ll do our level best to cheer him up.”

They went downstairs, Will grimacing at how even that friendly slap on the shoulder could now be misconstrued.

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