Read by Paul Clarke
It would have been helpful in the telling of this tale, if I still possessed a photograph that was taken during the summer of 1845. In addition to visually illustrating the personalities involved, I imagine that it was among the first photographs ever to have been taken anywhere in the world, and so held value as a historical curiosity. Alas, it was claimed, along with many other valuables and keepsakes, by the inferno that destroyed the east wing of Roxburgh Hall; the contents of a roaring fireplace having collapsed into one of the drawing rooms, while the entire household was at dinner.
The photograph was taken on the beach at Saundersfoot, on the coast of Wales. I will describe the image for you, as it appears in my memory: A row of three boys, aged between nine and eleven years, and dressed in pirate costumes, are charging with brandished swords through knee-high tidal surf, in the manner of buccaneers who have recently disembarked from their ship and have taken to the shore in search of plunder.
The boy on the left is Arthur Roxburgh, who was the sole heir to his family's considerable fortune. He wears a three-cornered hat decorated with gold braid. I stand on the opposite side of the frame wearing a much inferior hat in a similar style. I recall the felted material absorbing so much seawater that it began to droop. By the end of the day it had permanently lost its shape. Sandwiched between the pair of us, and almost forced out of shot, is Arthur's younger brother, Jeremy Roxburgh. His face is partly obscured from sight by the glare of the sun reflecting off a polished silver skull and crossbones brooch, attached to the crown of Arthur's hat. Since there were only two hats available, Jeremy was forced to make do with one of his governess's silk scarves, pulled tightly over his scalp. By the end of the day this too had been ruined by the saltwater.
The weapons that we gleefully wielded, had been taken down by our own hands from their display mounts on the oak-panelled walls at Roxburgh Hall. Paying no heed to their age, or the danger they posed, we later fought mock duels among the sand dunes and marram grass. It was during one of these skirmishes that Jeremy nicked my forehead with the tip of his sword, leaving a shallow triangular depression above my left eye.
At this time my parents were resident in British Aden where my father worked in some administrative capacity. It was the suggestion of a fellow expatriate, Lord Jonathan Roxburgh, that I spend the summer with his boys, who he had left behind in Wales, in the care of his household staff. Lady Roxburgh had succumbed to blackwater fever the previous year.
Over the course of these two months, before I reluctantly returned to school, I watched Jeremy grow in confidence and prowess, until he routinely surpassed his older brother in physical activities and displays of knowledge.
The following summer I returned to Roxburgh Hall. The Jeremy I encountered on this occasion was thinner around the face. There was a foxy aspect to his tapering features, that were softened by a pair of round spectacles. The confidence he had displayed during the previous season had evaporated. His voice was reedy and he was less inclined towards athletic activity. Plainly he was a different boy entirely, and I was unsure how best to broach the subject with my host.
Fortunately Arthur's governess, a well-educated woman named Mabel Somes, had the foresight to take me to one side and offer an explanation: Arthur's father, fearing that his only son might fall prey to the black moods that had ruled his early life as an only child, had arranged for a boy slightly younger than Arthur to assume the position of his brother. Since my last visit, there had been a falling out between the pair. The Jeremy I had known had been discharged from service, and a new boy procured to fill the role.
I pondered this arrangement and found that I was troubled by the fate of the boy, who had been cast down from the lap of luxury to face an uncertain future.
A few days later, I interrogated Miss Somes, who appeared relieved to unburden herself on this matter. She told me that the boy had been drawn from an impoverished background. She did not know the full details. Prior to entering the service of the Roxburghs he had been required to forsake all previous family attachments. When I pressed her on the fate of the boy, she broke down in tears and told me that, like the others before him, he had been dispatched to an orphanage in the east-end of London, where he could cause no further bother. Alarmed by her revelation, I asked her how many boys had taken the role of Jeremy. She informed me quietly that there had been four in total.
Through happy coincidence, in adulthood I was given reign over a parish church a few miles distant from Roxburgh Hall. I remained in close contact with Arthur who continued to live there in the company of his brother – a man of ever-changing faces, who shadowed his older sibling only in age. Arthur's father had taken residence in one of the family's London properties.
Miss Somes, who was now in her dotage, always looked upon me with kindness. She mentioned once some legal clause, insisted upon by Lord Roxburgh, that his son must always have the company of a younger brother. She had assumed responsibility for the procurement of men who would fill this role.
“It is easier now that they are older men,” she confided. “In the beginning I did attempt some continuity. If the previous Jeremy spoke French then so must his successor. Now, though, I hardly bother. I look for a man who won't steal, or drag the good name of the family through the mud. Most of them are actors of a sort, who view it as a job.”
I asked her where Arthur's opinions on the matter lay. Surely he must have talked to his father about it?
Miss Somes leaned forward in her rocker and gripped me firmly by the knee.
“It is a subject that both of us avoid,” she said.
It was in 1864, not long after Arthur Roxburgh had inherited his father's estate, that he very nearly paid the price for the early ill-treatment he had callously meted out to his younger brother. As I have mentioned, those children who were cast in the role of Jeremy, and relieved from service when they were not yet of age, were dispatched to the same east London orphanage. It seems that some of these boys, finding that they shared common ground, had banded together and had continued to associate with one another in adulthood, forming themselves into an association that they named The Society of Jeremys. A handful of these individuals, who were still bitter at their treatment and resentful of their exclusion from their previous well-heeled lifestyle, made plans to take revenge upon their older brother. It is uncertain what form this retribution would have taken had it come to pass. Clearly robbery was an element of it. What they intended for Arthur – to kill him or to simply inflict torture or injury – is unknown.
Fortunately not everyone within the group wished harm upon the new Lord Roxburgh. One morning I was awakened by frantic hammering on my front door. Upon raising the latch I found myself confronted by the incumbent Jeremy and two of his distant predecessors, who relayed to me what was about to occur.
We were able intercept the gang of troublemakers along a remote back lane that leads to the Roxburgh estate. A battle ensued in which brother fought brother with pistol, sword and bare fist. During the struggle, one of the aggressors was wounded by a long blade in the abdomen, at which point they fled, dragging the injured man along with them. He was found dead a mile away the next morning. Following interviews with those parties who were involved, it was agreed that no charges would be brought and the details of the matter kept secret. We did not relay what had happened to Arthur for fear that he might find it upsetting.
After this incident I made the decision to move to London. My contact with the Roxburgh household became less frequent and I assumed that I had seen the last of Jeremy. Many decades passed before fate conspired to intervene: I was working as a minister at a mission for elderly seamen, in Shadwell, close to the Thames docks. One evening in the communal mess hall, an old salt, whose wizened features were partly concealed behind the foaming spume of his white beard, sat down at the opposite bench of the long table and addressed me:
“Sir, you may not recognise me. I am only able to identify you by the distinctive scar on your forehead which I was the cause of many years ago.”
I asked this man, whom I had once known as Jeremy, and who now referred to himself as Donald, what had become of him during the intervening years.
“I made myself an early fortune as a harvester of comet stems,” he told me. “When shooting stars pass overhead, they shower behind them small fragments of precious metals that men of a scientific mind will pay a pretty penny for. I was taught by a wise old traveller how to listen out for the sound of the hot shards as they strike against leaves, and how to watch for the distinctive glint that each of these pieces gives off where it comes to rest.”
Later, he claimed to have fallen to drink and gambling. He had lost everything in what he described as a “bad flowering hand of rosy.” (Presumably this is some manner of card game, I didn't ask).
“I went to sea to escape my debts. Now here I am at the frayed end of my life, with little of my own to speak of.”
In the days that followed, I corresponded with Stuart MacIndoe, who was then manager of the Roxburgh estate. Together we arranged for the elderly man to be installed in one of the cottages on the site. We kept this a secret from Arthur, who was no longer in full possession of his senses and would not have understood. It was in this manner that the Jeremy whom I had known for a few months as a boy, was the only brother to return to his former home. He died peacefully a few months later and was discreetly interred in the family plot.
It was around this time that the incumbent Jeremy also passed away. Given Lord Roxburgh's deteriorating mental condition there was some discussion as to whether it was necessary to fill the empty position. While these conversations were underway, Arthur, who was now bed-ridden, caught a glimpse of one of the maid's boys and identified him as his younger brother; a role that the child willingly gravitated towards until the older man's death shortly after.
Arthur Roxburgh left no heir. The executors of his estate have privately expressed their desire that the young boy, whom he identified as his brother, be given formal status, so that he may carry on the family name. Were this to transpire he would be passed ownership of the Roxburgh fortune upon turning 21 years of age.
On paper, Jeremy Roxburgh is 83 years old and has lived many lives. It appears that he stands upon the cusp of being reborn once more, though perhaps for the last time.
(c) Mark Sadler, 2017
Mark Sadler lives in Southend-on-Sea. His work has mostly appeared on the Smoke: A London Periodical website. He is writing a novel set in London at the turn of the Millennium, and inspired by a misheard Tindersticks lyric.
Paul Clarke trained at the Central School and always got cast as a baddie or a monster. Or, for a bit of variety, a bad monster. Now a photographer, technologist and occasional performer, he finds the League's stories islands of relative sanity in his life.