HOUSE OF LORDS – 1913
My name is William Pilgrim.
Viscount William Pilgrim to give my full title, having taken my seat in the House of Lords by writ of acceleration in 1903.
It was in the second decade of the century that the events I am about to describe below occurred and a year on from the tragedy that was the sinking of the White Star’s flagship liner Titanic; the third Irish Home Rule Bill had just been rejected in the House of Lords – though not by me – and Central America was in a turmoil which would lead to the Mexican Revolution.
I was forty-four years of age at this time and about as satisfied with my lot as a man could be who had never wanted for the material things of life and been untroubled by those concerns most vexing to those not born to a title and a settled income.
My twenty-years of marriage to Adele, and the two university aged boys following from it, have no bearing on the tale I am to tell and are given to you simply to flesh out your writer in a more rounded human form.
The above, and an interest in the sciences carried over from my time at Balliol, as much as a reader need know of an author who will play only the most minor – if necessarily crucial – role in the story about to be related which I shall now without further preamble begin.
A story only now, and long after the passing of its subject, I feel able to share.
And only then with certain safeguards to protect the reputation of an entirely decent, highly intelligent, and innocent man.
It was in the February of 1913 that I took leave of my family and the country itself to travel to the kingdom of Haiti that is to be found on the island once known as Hispaniola, located in the Greater Antilles archipelago of the Caribbean Sea to the east of Cuba and Jamaica and south of The Bahamas.
Why, you may ask?
A good question, and one I may not have been too well-disposed towards answering – had, that is, the month of departure not been deep into a particularly inclement English winter and the appeal of weather waiting for me in more southerly climes.
The fact the trip was unavoidable, and my presence gently insisted upon – though to this day I cannot think of one qualifying reason why other than those too obvious to provide and explanation – by no other than Sir Edward Grey, my fellow Viscount, and the country’s Foreign Secretary since 1905, made my own thoughts on the matter academic.
The summons leaving me in doubt that my refusal would not be looked well upon.
Haiti, it seemed, had taken on some kind of strategic importance with our leaders for reasons I was unable to divine under my own steam – and was, it must be said, no wiser when I travelled back home after my brief tenure there.
Still, and tacitly implied displeasure notwithstanding – country first, and all that, as they say.
Anyway, I was soon sailing south with the intention of taking up a position as the temporary consulate in the Republic’s capital of Port-au-Prince and steadying the ship until a more long-term appointment could be made after Her Majesty’s appointee in situ had gone to the great trouble of dying in order to cut his own term short.
It would turn out to be a stay of almost eight months duration during which if I achieved anything of note other than making ample use of the entertainment provided by my fellow countrymen already bedded in there and, sometimes I confess, – being a married man on his own abroad while remaining still a man of flesh and blood – their wives and daughters, the knowledge of it went completely above my head.
From the time I disembarked under a blazing midday sun I immediately noticed how that same sun seemed to make everything seem so much slower.
There appeared no urgency of any kind.
Even from those in the small boats that caught my eye as the locals rowing them alongside held aloft varieties of fruits and vegetables in baskets intended for purchase seemed exceptionally fatalistic and accepting of whether their produce was either bought.
Or, as it was in most cases, ignored.
Smiling, friendly, and welcoming black faces turned up to the passengers peering over the handrail.
In fact, exactly the kind of sight the cosseted and uninformed white visitor would be expecting.
Though there was one sight that caught my eye that was not so… expected …once I made it ashore and waited as my cases were landed on the somewhat battered jalopy that had been sent to ferry me to my temporary home.
A sight, I confess, I found astounding.
And not after a positive fashion.
As I waited in the passenger seat of my transport, a grand and immaculately kept horse-drawn carriage – far grander than those waiting to ferry my fellow visitors to the interior of the town – rolled to a halt some thirty yards away upon the quayside and, though I ascribed it to imagination at the time, the native Haitians in the vicinity seemed to fall still and gaze upon it with what I described to myself as a kind of wary…
As the black coachman reined the horses in, they too stood motionless and perfectly obediently, as if they also were in thrall to the carriage and its occupant.
Which was when I felt my mouth drop open with surprise at the footman who leapt from the back of the coach itself.
A footman scurrying in the most wretched and subservient of fashions as he rushed to open the carriage door for his master to step down to the dry and dusty quayside.
A master, I saw with some small shock, who was black.
And also… female.
But this was not the reason my mouth had fallen open.
I am considered by my fellows the most liberal of men and usually imperturbable in the face of my fellow journeymen’s… foibles. My Grandfather was a friend of Wilberforce in his youth and shared much of his reforming zeal, after all. A mindset he passed on to my father from whom the same favour was returned to yours truly.
For the servant, scurrying as if he were a Chinese coolie in service to a demanding Emperor as he hurried to do the bidding of this woman, was a man of around my own age.
He was also the palest of whites.
This despite the burning sun that would surely burnish anyone who lived beneath it for any length of time.
And, more startling still…
I swore for the life of me that he looked familiar!
Which was the exact moment, as his mistress alighted from the coach and her servant’s eyes covered the yard distance between us to stare at me and I became surer of my familiarity with him despite being unable to place his name and feeling certain nobody of my acquaintance could have come to such a pass.
Though from the look of anguished recognition he gave me, it was obvious his own memory laboured under no such malfunction.
The car taking me to the Consulate pulled away and I soon put what I had seen to the back of my mind; though in the circles in which I moved guesses would often be made about the identity of the white-man who served the island’s Obeah Princess.
And how and why he could accept such a position.
So began my temporary term of residence in Port-au-Prince and, wrapped up as I was in the social whirl to be found in the circles of visiting Europeans, it was hardly surprising the curious situation of a white-man serving as a local woman’s servant did not retain pride of place in my thoughts.
And especially not when that situation was competing with more delightful and opposition.
Opposition you would be right in thinking female.
But it was not until my time on the island was almost up – the day before I sailed, in fact – that the journal found waiting at the Consulate door and addressed to me would answer my questions.
And in the most shocking way imaginable for someone of my background.
The contents of that journal I have supplied below – though not the heartrending letter accompanying it.
Nor at those places where you will realise, I have acted as censor.
As much to protect delicate sensibilities – even in these more free and modern times – as the memory of a good man who did not deserve the emasculating fate the fortunes decreed.
For I had indeed been right when I thought the wretched servant of the black woman had been familiar to me.
As had been the name of his one-time fiancé who I would meet for the first time some years after the journal – which is now the sole remaining copy of whose existence the woman knows nothing – found my possession.
It had been a meeting almost as shocking as the story contained in the journal itself and I shall refrain from writing of until the Afterword of this tale, at which time you will have a fuller – if necessarily incomplete – idea of the fate reserved for the wretched writer of our journal.
Also, and out of respect for the wishes of a man I once knew and respected as both a person of learning and sound morality, I have used a different name to his own and for any others whose true identities might make supposition easier.
Only now in my dotage, when so many of those who might have read between my lines and divined the identity of the hapless man are gone, is my conscience clear enough to make the story of my former acquaintance known.
A hapless man whose first-person story, put together he assured me from his own diary entries of the time – and actually encouraged by his female employer for reasons of her own – is published below and will be unlikely to stir recognition and, perhaps, rebuke from those a long time cold and soon to count me of their number,
May he, along with the rest of us, find peace in the embrace of his maker.
Viscount William Pilgrim
House of Lords