Letter 3 – Part 4
It is late, my dear. I am eager to share with you the visit to the Shelleys’ home, but I feel I must postpone the writing until I am fresher on the morrow. Until then, my love.
The children are at work on their figures, and at last I can return to this letter, which should go out in this evening’s post—I shall will myself to let it on its way. I must have found the visitation of the Russian more disturbing than I believed—perhaps distracted by preparing for and anticipating tea at the Shelleys’ (a description soon to follow)—but I was fretful in my sleep and thus heard my brother’s return in the small hours of the night, of morning really. I cannot say precisely when. He was heavyfooted which makes me suspicious that he and Mr Andropov imbibed in spirits, for Robin was rather clumsy upon the stair. He has not risen and it will be noon ere long.
It is not far to Marchmont Street. The day was overcast with grey clouds but not threatening rain, so it was a pleasant enough walk with the children to the Shelleys’. It made me think of how little I’ve been away from the house in recent weeks—two visits to Mr Squire’s bookshop, and of course tea at Mr Smythe’s but the latter hardly counts as away I should think. Every Sunday there is pang of guilt at not taking the children to services, but then I think of little Maurice and the guilt is replaced with anger. Rev Grayling has called upon me twice, but I’m ashamed to admit that my reception of him was chilly, perhaps he may say icy, and he has not presented another overture. After weeks of seclusion it seems the whole world is coming to me now. If only you would be among the throng, my dear.
I kept the children close during our trek. Right away I noticed men noticing Agatha. She was attired most modestly, you can be assured, but there is little to be done to obscure her perfectly heart-shaped face and expressively large brown eyes, nor the chestnut strands that fell beneath her bonnet. Beyond that there is Aggie’s aura of maturity that seems to have sprung up so keenly of late. Even when she is playing dollies with Miss Buzzle it suggests a brief prelude to motherhood. I daresay she is quite a different daughter from the one you left to go on your business affair. I smile to think of your astonishment when you return.
I digress. The Shelleys’ home on Marchmont Street is only trifle more than a cottage but pleasantly, though sparsely, appointed. Its lack of furnishings provides the advantageous effect of airiness. The small rooms could easily become quite as claustrophobic as Mr Smythe’s if Mrs Shelley is not careful. I delay myself from reporting what may be the most significant news: Mrs Shelley (Mae) has a son. As soon as we arrived she introduced the child, William, a mere toddler. It explained why Mae included Felix and Aggie in the invitation, although the age differentials prevented true playful intercourse. Felix and Aggie went with the boy to his nursery and entertained him with blocks and games of cat-and-rat on the chalkboard, which afforded Mae and me the opportunity to converse as adults and not merely mothers. We had only just settled with our tea when Mae confided that her husband was away because police informants were watching out for Mr Shelley on account of some outstanding debts—a misunderstanding that the poet was working to correct. It seemed a rather intimate confession to make to a new acquaintance, but my sense was that it has been weighing on her profoundly and she has had no one with whom to share the circumstance. I of course cannot relate to such pecuniary woes; however, wishing to offer some evidence of sympathy, I told of your long absence and how it affects us all. (I never forget for a moment that you are away toiling for our benefit).
There was a small writing-desk in the room—the single room that serves as both receiving room and parlor—and on it were several sheets of foolscap, along with stylus and ink. I could ascertain from my position on the sofa that there was some writing on the top sheet. ‘I see you are composing—it wouldn’t be your story?’ Mae hesitated a moment; then, ‘You are uncanny. I have scraps of ideas, of images—most have come to me in a half-waking state of dream—but they do not fit together. They will not coalesce into a lucid narrative. I am quite bewildered at the notion of writing an entire book, and think of giving it up altogether. Yet it distracts me from darker thoughts . . . darker places.’ From the nursery we heard her son William’s wet and persistent cough. I do not know from where the advice sprang but I offered, ‘Perhaps you should succumb to the dark thoughts, go to the dark places, when writing I mean. Perhaps the obstacles you encounter while composing are due to your attempt to evade them rather than embrace them.’ Mae seemed unsure how to respond. I added, ‘What do I know? I am not a writer.’ ‘Sometimes,’ she said, ‘I think I shall never be either.’
The conversation took a lighter turn, and we spent a pleasant pair of hours at the Shelleys’ quaint home. Before leaving Mae insisted that Felix should borrow a volume, and we were shown into her husband’s study where their books are stored in short, open-faced cases. Felix, quite excited but attempting to mask his childlike glee, selected a collection of Bavarian folk-stories, in German. I encouraged him to choose something in English. May, however, insisted it was a prudent choice: ‘The young have a natural aptitude for languages. I acquired several languages from my father’s library—to read at least. Conversing is another matter.’ And I noted titles in French and Italian among the books immediately before us.
We left Mrs Shelley, and I expressed my hope that her husband’s affairs would not keep him long. While we were visiting, the weather had turned somewhat and large drops rained down upon us intermittently. It was not unpleasant but I cannot help being anxious about the children, especially Felix, though he appears reasonably hale. No doubt it is his resemblance to his little brother that gives me over to foreboding. Never the less, we arrived home and Mrs O drew a warm bath for the children to light on the side of caution.
This letter, I suppose, has gone on quite long enough, my dearest. Robin has been in his room most of the evening. I have not had opportunity to inquire about his time with Mr Andropov and whether or not he retrieved his chest. I suspect it may be in Maurice’s room. I shall trust that my brother had the good sense to inspect its contents before fetching it home. I would not want any exotic vermin transported into the house. The native sort are nuisance enough!
I shall post this letter in the morning. I trust our placatory evening shall continue, and there shall be no more to report of this eventful day.
I regret concluding this letter on such an ominous note but I am compelled to describe the disquieting dream that woke me in the night. I believed I again heard the horrific sounds of the slaughterhouse, except much closer at hand. My fear was chiseled and cold, like a block of ice weighing upon my breast. I wondered if another slaughterhouse, nearer by, was the source of the terrified and in turn terrifying shrieks. Then, in the manner of dreams, I was no longer in my bed but standing facing the room’s closed door, my bare feet on the hard and frozen floor. Amid the horrified lowing and bleating I believed I heard a call of ‘Mama.’ Again, ‘Mama.’ I knew it was the children. I opened the door and stepped into the hall, which was dark save for a wan glow coming from the stairs. Robin’s door was open but only partly and beyond the opening was the total darkness of a tomb. The cries of ‘Mama’ came from downstairs and were now so loud they split my ears. I clasped my hands to the sides of my head to try in vain to muffle the cries as I moved forward. There was a frigid draft in the hall as if a window had been left full open in winter. I realized my nightgown was wet with tears I’d been shedding all along. I felt the chill of the damp material at my throat as I began to make my way down the stairs—the light and the children’s cries increasing with every careful step. I reached out to steady myself, uncovering my ears and intensifying Felix’s and Agatha’s anguished cries for their Mamamamamamama. I reached the bottom of the steps and discovered the light was emitting from the kitchen, and with the realization, the very second, the children ceased their calling out. I waded through the terrible silence as if ice-choked floodwaters impeded my progress. I stepped into the kitchen, where lamplight suddenly dimmed. In the sickly yellow illumination Felix and Agatha were lying on the table, side by side and lengthwise. They turned their eyes to me pleadingly, their little faces racked in expressions of pain. A man stood beside the table. I reached out and told the children to come to me; but as I said it I saw their limbs had been severed. Their arms and legs lay in place but lifeless upon the table. The man beside the children was the Russian, Mr Andropov. He held his saw, its blade dark with blood in the poor light. ‘I had no choice,’ he said in his thick accent, then motioned with his hand that was mostly amputated toward the small table to his left where a seaman’s chest lay open, Robin’s chest presumably. I looked again to the children and their severed arms and legs were now the severed limbs of animals, the legs of cows and sheep lying where their own dead limbs had lain. I desperately attempted to make sense of the Russian’s inadequate explanation but its logic would not come to me. A kitchen window was full open and a wintry wind blew the chest shut, the sudden slam of its heavy lid waking me completely. The scene vanished but the terror of it clung to me like the dampness which had formed on my skin.
It was a preposterous dream. Certainly Robin’s old mate suggested no one so menacing. I hesitated to describe it other than in the hope that writing it out would purge the silliness from my mind (and the disquiet from my soul). Thank you for listening, my love.
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 novella Weeping 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.