Letter 1 – Part 2
In spite of being taken aback by Robin’s wasted appearance, Mr Smythe, no doubt due to his own loneliness and generally kind nature, invited him to smoke a bowl of tobacco with him after he’d had a chance to sup—‘a fine Indian cut,’ Mr S described it. I knew that Robin would decline, if for no other reason than he had never been attracted to tobacco—but he surprised me by accepting our neighbor’s invitation. I realized that my brother has no doubt taken up many new occupations during his years at sea, occupations to fill the countless empty hours among the desolate waves and phantasmagoric bergs of ice.
My occupation seems to be this letter-writing, if not this letter itself. I find I do not want to put aside the quill and tend to responsibilities. And when I do, when necessity requires it, I find that I am thinking of it, itching to return to it. I have heard stories of the opium fiends, the men (and women) who are possessed by a desire for the drug, no matter its deleterious qualities. I can now relate to that possession. Writing seems to have unlocked something in me. I can only pray that it will not prove as destructive as a burning thirst for the fruits of the poppy.
(I know I have not posted, but again I find myself only partway down a page, thus, my dear, to avoid the waste . . .)
The aroma of Mr Smythe’s Oriental tobacco wafted indoors as the kitchen windows were raised to let some air circulate. Mrs O and I were preparing vegetables to add to the simmering stock, whose richness competed with the bowls of tobacco. With the windows raised a quarter, between chops and scrapes of Mrs O’s and my blades, I overheard the pipe-smokers’ conversation. Mr S dominated the discussion (which I expected, given my brother’s taciturnity since his return). Mr S had served King and country in the Colonies, and he was relating a tale that he experienced ‘in the wilds of Nova Scotia.’ The Indians there—Mr S pronounced the tribe’s name but I shan’t attempt to spell it—had a legend of some beast that lived in the forest, some creature that walked upon two legs, like a man, and was even reported to speak the names of his victims before dispatching them most horrifically. Mr S acknowledged that he was yet a young man and still possessed of an overly romantic fancy, so he was prone to believe such tales more than he ought. He was assigned to escort a supply caravan to Fort Sackville, which required a three days’ hike through the woods. On the first day, light began to fade by midafternoon, so impenetrable were the woods and so far north. This particular band of Indians always kept dogs, and when they made camp the dogs would place themselves about its perimeter. The ragtag assembly of His Majesty’s foot-soldiers, native guides, and a pair of French trappers who served as linguists settled in for the long arboreal night, building their cook fire, preparing food and tea, and unpacking their bedrolls. The moment darkness descended in total, the dogs—great furry creatures, said Mr S, some northern relation of the English mastiff—they became on edge and watchful. Their wide, shaggy backsides shone in the golden firelight as they sat upon their haunches and stared ever so keenly into the blackness that surrounded them. The soldiers and the trappers attempted to disregard the dogs, who would emit every now and then a low growl, but their Indian masters were most attune to the dogs’ behavior. The Indians were as quiet as Anglicans at prayer, sipping their tea and keeping their fingers only inches from their long-bladed knives and war-hatchets. Mr S fell asleep, utterly exhausted from the hike and the Frenchmen’s homemade spirits that they’d packed—only to awake later to some sort of disturbance. It was still the blackest hours of night, and the Indians were fully alert, standing with backs to one another, their weapons drawn. Their big dogs were on their feet menacing the darkness with their rumbling growls. Mr Smythe took up his musket, not bothering to load it but brandishing its bayonet.
I must say, I was slow in my vegetable preparation as I was enthralled by our neighbor’s tale. I’m afraid that was the climax of it, however. The camp eventually settled—though no one returned to sleep, Mr S assured my brother. There were some language barriers, but Mr S came to understand from the Indians, filtered through the Frenchmen into broken English, that they believed they had had an encounter with ‘the Hairy Man of the Forest’—the being who had plagued their people for generations. They further believed it was only the presence of their powerful dogs that dissuaded the Hairy Man from entering their camp.
Mr S had been long of wind, and his story had taken some time to tell—but he had clearly reached its end, and by conventional rules it was Robin’s turn to respond in some verbal way. Yet a silence ensued. I realized that even Mrs O was quiet at her chopping as she too must’ve been spellbound by our neighbor’s narrative. From my vantage I couldn’t quite see the interlocutors. However, if I looked through the window, toward the left, I could see their pipes’ upward columns of smoke; and when a few seconds of long-enduring silence stretched itself out, I spied that Robin’s column was behaving most queerly, rising in a zigzag pattern as if a writhing serpent of steam. I leaned so that I had a fuller view and I saw that Robin’s hand which held the pipe was trembling rather violently. I hastened to exit the kitchen and as I did I heard Mr S questioning my brother as to his disposition. I was momentarily at Robin’s side. How to describe him? As I have said, his hand trembled, yes, as did his entire body; or perhaps more accurately, his entire being—for one received the impression that even his soul vibrated with whatever had taken hold of him. He stared into the space before him but not seeing the doors and windows of the close-quartered houses, as tight together as barrel staves, yet seeing something else, something terrible, for his brow was knit in a contortion of horror. I swear, his hair and beard, though now neatly trimmed, had turned a hoarier white, as if he’d aged while sitting in the alley, smoking and listening to our neighbor’s strange story. It may be that a pallor had come to his countenance, beneath the beard, and it had magnified the strands of white. It occurred to me that someone looking upon the scene may believe at a glance that Mr Smythe and Robin are contemporaries—yet my brother is but thirty years old. I considered for a moment that my arithmetic must be in error, he seemed so aged before my eyes there in the alley. The figure is quite correct, however.
Mr S removed the pipe from Robin’s trembling grip (his fingers were solidly locked around the bowl), and I coaxed him to stand. It required a moment’s urging but he did finally rise and allow me to assist him indoors. I thanked Mr S for his kindnesses, over my shoulder, and wished him a good evening. I believe he felt responsible as the instrument of Robin’s petrification, but I did not believe him at fault. There is no question that Robin returned to us with a fragile constitution—Mr S could not have known that an interesting traveler’s tale would have such an affect on Robin, himself now a man of the wide world. No doubt our neighbor was hoping to prompt Robin into sharing some intriguing narrative of his own journeys, tit for tat—something to bring some color to Mr S’s typically monochromatic day.
Robin’s reaction recalled for me the behaviors of some of the men who fought against the Colonies in their rebellion. I was still a girl when they began to come home in their inglorious defeat. In particular I recall the son of our neighbors, the Wadkinses. On occasion he would accompany them when they came for tea. Nathan was his name. I was permitted to sit in the parlor as long as I did not speak. I remember observing Mr Nathan, who also was largely taciturn on these visitings, and it occurred to me there was something rather shattered about him. Not his physique, I mean—although he did appear to favor one leg—rather, his spirit or his persona was in pieces, like a china platter that has been dropped, and it lay upon the floor essentially in the pattern of its former self, but the pieces are no longer connected and some are angled oddly from the whole of the new composition, and here and there some small pieces may seem to be missing altogether. (There have been nights, when I silently looked upon the children in their beds, that I felt a bit like such a platter, now that I conjure the comparison.)
So that is how I thought of Robin as I assisted him indoors: He resembled his former self, but there was something broken about him. I don’t want to alarm you, my dear; Robin is not violent, I am certain of it. Beneath whatever has affected him so profoundly, he is still the gentle, kindhearted brother whom I remember so fondly. And, to be sure, once he was seated in our cozy parlor, with a shawl upon his shoulders, though it was to ward off a chill that only he seemed to feel, and with a cup of Mrs O’s excellent tea—Robin became at peace again.
(Later.) Here I have been filling sheet upon sheet with my rambling thoughts and observations, and have said very little of our dear ones, about whom, I know, you thirst for intelligences most of all! I have mentioned how I believe you will take to the industrious Mrs O’Hair—well, certainly Agatha has. I often find her spying Mrs O from the hall or through the window, when she and her brother are to be playing out-of-doors to receive some air. Aggie seems most fascinated with the exotic Mrs O. I don’t believe either of the children had ever encountered an Irishwoman before. Of course Mrs O was not blind to Aggie’s fascination, and she began inviting her to assist her in her duties, especially in the kitchen, for Agatha’s edification—not to train our little girl to be a domestic! Of course not. But there are certain fundamental skills that are useful to possess no matter one’s station in life. I’m certain, my dear, that you agree on that point. For how can one evaluate a cook’s or a maid’s skillfulness if one has no base of knowledge from which to judge? I have always felt somewhat off my footing in such matters, relying principally on luck when employing necessary positions. Which is why I have availed myself of Mrs O’s clear expertises; and I, also, am being tutored, though not as directly as our Agatha. As I sit and stitch in the kitchen, I keep a keen eye on Mrs O’s procedures, committing them to memory until such time that I may record them in my journal. Except of course for those times I have been pointedly involved, as in the making of the currant jam.
At first Mrs O was loathe to afford Aggie too much responsibility, undoubtedly feeling that she was too much of a child—she presents that image on account of her being small for her age. But Mrs O has come to accept that our Agatha is twelve, or nearly so, and hence is become a young lady. I daresay she will be out and married and raising a family of her own before we know what has happened. Though I must say it is difficult to imagine at times; when, for instance, she and Felix play knucklebones or nine-men’s-Morris in the alley; or when she carries with her on stormy nights Miss Buzzle, her ragdoll; or when she and Felix squabble over the most childish disputes, like who will receive the last bit of ice shavings to sweeten with molasses (you will recall what a treat the children count it, especially out little Maurice, who seemed to have a molasses tooth).
Do not mistake me: The children are good. You can be proud of them in your absence. As I said, Agatha is become a young lady. When she assists Mrs O in the kitchen, she pins up her hair into a chestnut bun, and she dons an apron that Mrs O has fashioned just her size; and add the air of seriousness, and our Aggie could pass for mistress of her own house. I was struck with that image, again, just the other day, the day before Robin’s arrival, I believe. I said something in greeting when I entered the kitchen, and Aggie turned to me and there was a thumbprint of flour on her cheekbone; and something about it along with her hair swept from her face (classically heart-shaped, as you always said), and maybe, too, the grey shade of her frock’s collar—well, I was struck by the blue of her eyes. I remembered thinking of them as ‘glacial’ blue, which was odd for I have never been in the far northern part of the world, and I realized it was an adjective I must have extracted from one of Robin’s letters, though I couldn’t recall the phrase’s origin precisely. I thought that I must take up my brother’s correspondences from the bureau drawer in the parlor, and re-read them to satisfy my curiosity about the word in my vocabulary—for it may have gained entrance from some other source, from some book, for example.
However, then I neglected to take up the letters, and the very next day Robin turned up in our foyer, as reborn as Lazarus. And Robin’s eyes, too, exhibited the exact icy-blue quality of Agatha’s—I take note of the similarity only now, in retrospect.
(I must cease for the time being, dearest, and I could justify posting, for I have very nearly reached the terminus of this sheet—but I feel I must give Felix, out of maternal fairness, equal ‘stage time,’ as it were.)
I believe the greatest change you will discover in Felix when you return is his bibliophilism. He always enjoyed being read to but in the past year his own passion for reading has become inflamed. Even when he is at play with his sister, in the alley or hall or parlor, he likes to have a book near at hand, almost as if comforted by it, the way Miss Buzzle comforts Agatha. I know you at times felt entombed by Uncle’s books when they arrived in two full carts and we had no choice but to stack them along the walls in every room, save the kitchen and washroom, for the modest bookcase in the parlor could hold but a thimbleful compared to the bucket that would be required. I further know your sometimes irksome disposition toward the stacks of books that haunt about the house was due to your disappointment in the settling of Uncle’s estate, but it is fortunate that Uncle bequeathed a significant portion of his library to me—largely books of poetry and romances—and not simply left everything to Robin, who surely would have liquidated the books along with everything else to finance his expedition; and they would be gone now too. The Benjamin Franklin must remain, yet I fear she may be in as sad of shape as her master, in which case she can only be auctioned in sections for her timber, and whichever gear survived. As you may conjecture, I have not broached such subjects with my brother.
There is a trader in books in Marchmont Street, and now and then I have sold a volume or two. I must be watchful of course not to dispose of one of Felix’s favorites, the Sarah Fielding, for instance, or the John Gays. I wonder sometimes at Uncle’s tastes. Perhaps he was indiscriminate and purchased books as much for their mere availability as for their subject matter. Felix may have inherited the trait as his selections of material are remarkably eclectic; for a day or two favoring a novel, then a collection of verse, then drama. Oftentimes he is so ardent in his reading I am reluctant to force him to move on to other studies of a morning—yet I know how earnest you are to have him learn his figures, and geography.
At present Felix is engaged in the Beggar’s Opera. His favored place is in the corner of the kitchen nearest to the washroom door, and next to a window of course. Mrs O’Hair will fix him his tea, with a splash of milk, as he prefers, and set it on the sill within easy reach from his chair. He will have rolled up the rug as a cushion for his feet, and if it’s an especially drafty morning he will place one of my shawls over his shoulders. He will then appear quite the little man, with his old book and tea and shawl. All he would require is a pipe to complete the tableau. Of course his hair hanging down and the perfect ivory of his hands and face falsify the impression. Mrs O’s pet-name for Felix is ‘Old Soul’.
I am most definitely posting this letter today—this very moment in fact!
I miss you terribly, my dear, and I trust that your business will conclude soon and you will return to us.
Ted Morrissey is the author of four books of fiction as well as two books of scholarship. His works of fiction include the novels An Untimely Frost and Men of Winter, and the novellaWeeping with an Ancient God, which was named a Best Book of 2015 by Chicago Book Review. His stories, essays and reviews have appeared in more than forty publications. He teaches in the MFA in Writing program at Lindenwood University. He lives near Springfield, Illinois, where he and his wife Melissa, an educator and children’s author, direct Twelve Winters Press.