- Author: Clare Flynn
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The Pearl Of Penang
Copyright © 2019 by Clare Flynn
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When the letter from Douglas Barrington arrived, Evie Fraser was at breakfast. Instead of eating, she was thumbing through the situations vacant pages of The Lady magazine. It was a weekly ritual that Mrs Shipley-Thomas, her elderly employer, had long since given up complaining about. After nine years working as a paid companion, Evie would have loved to break free and try something different. But every time she identified a position that might be promising, she weighed it against her current one and found it wanting or insufficiently different to justify the upheaval and the inevitable distress of her employer. Mrs Shipley-Thomas was all too aware of Evie’s frustrations, but had grown complacent, believing her companion would never do anything about them.
A letter addressed to Evie was a rare occurrence. Mrs Shipley-Thomas looked up from shuffling through her own correspondence and frowned. ‘This one’s for you, my dear. It looks rather interesting. All the way from Malaya. Judging by the number of times it’s been forwarded, it’s a wonder it got here at all.’ She tapped the envelope with a fingernail.
‘I don’t know anyone in Malaya.’ Evie put down her teacup.
‘It seems you do, my dear. Perhaps it’s a long-lost admirer trying to track you down. Not that it’s any of my business.’ The old lady snorted, evidently amused at the improbability of her paid companion having such a thing as a gentleman friend.
Evie reached to take the missive, feeling a little frisson of excitement, then braced herself for disappointment. Nothing in her life ever justified a sense of anticipation. She turned the envelope over in her hands. It had been forwarded from her former home to her family’s solicitors and thence to here.
Unfolding the thin paper, she flattened out the crease. It was written using a typewriter and its sender must have positioned the paper in the carriage at an angle so the words were sloping slightly from left to right, probably unintentionally. The keys had been hit so hard that in places the letters had pierced the paper. It indicated haste and a lack of care, probably executed by someone unaccustomed to typing. The date was about seven weeks earlier. She glanced at the bottom of the page first and saw it was from her mother’s cousin, Douglas Barrington.
February 15th 1939
News of the death of your father has finally reached me here. Please accept my belated condolences. I also understand your mother is now living in America and that you are unattached.
I will come straight to the point. Following the death of my wife, Felicity, I am in need of support and companionship and it occurred to me that our interests may coincide. If you are willing, I am prepared to make you an offer of marriage. I regret that the distance involved and my business commitments here in Malaya prevent my journeying to England to ask you in person.
If this offer is acceptable to you, I will make arrangements for your passage to Penang. My friend, Arthur Leighton, the District Officer here, will be in England on home leave with his wife Veronica, returning in late June and they have offered to accompany you on the voyage. I look forward to hearing your response. If I have misunderstood your circumstances, please accept my apologies.
‘Oh, my goodness!’ Evie dropped the letter, then picked it up and read it again. ‘How extraordinary!’
‘Don’t keep me in suspense, dear girl. Spill the beans.’
‘It’s a proposal of marriage.’
‘By letter? Gracious! These modern men. Who on earth is it from?’
‘You’d better read it.’ Evie held out the piece of paper.
‘I don’t have my glasses. Just give me the gist.’
‘It’s from my mother’s cousin. He’s asked me to travel to Malaya and marry him.’
‘Heavens above. Your mother’s cousin? He must be far too old for you.’ She picked up the sugar tongs and dropped a lump into her tea.
‘Actually, he’s younger than Mummy. About twelve years older than me.’
‘And have you met this ill-mannered man?’
‘Just once. At his wedding. I was only fifteen. He danced with me.’ She closed her eyes, summoning up the memory. What she didn’t say was that it had been the most thrilling thing that had ever happened to her. He had been the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Thinking about it now made her feel giddy with the romance of that moment.
‘At his wedding?’ Mrs Shipley-Thomas looked horrified.
‘His wife has since died.’
‘He doesn’t say.’
‘And based on one dance with you many moons ago he’s decided you’ll make him a suitable spouse?’ She gave a little snort. ‘You must have made a big impression.’
‘I’m surprised he remembers me at all. He appears to have made the offer on the assumption that I’m on the shelf and desperate.’
‘Well you are, aren’t you?’ Mrs Shipley-Thomas gave another little snort. ‘How old are you now, Evelyn? Thirty?’
‘I think that qualifies you as an old maid.’
Evie pushed back her chair, sending her tea sloshing into the saucer.
‘Do be careful, dear. You really are the clumsiest girl. Where are you going now?’
‘To write my reply.’
‘Good show. Waste no time in sending him packing.’
‘I mean to say yes.’
‘What?’ Mrs Shipley-Thomas’s face contorted with shock.
‘I intend to accept his proposal. You’re quite right. I am desperate to avoid becoming an old maid. And