Letter 5 – Part 1
I shall begin with the ‘news’ that Mrs Shelley is intending to call this afternoon, and I have in turn invited Mr Smythe. I seem to forget the kindly gentleman until I desire something of him; and I detest that quality in others. Mrs O was quite in favor of the idea of my entertaining, and she suggested making a pastry which she calls ‘the bishop’s buttons.’ I suspect Mrs O is stimulated by the prospect of a break in the monotony of our daily schedule. I had not thought of the possibility of her suffering under the slow but steady weight of routine, as the Puritans used to crush their hostile witnesses by the addition of one small stone upon another, until either confession or expiration, whichever came first to the supine recipient. However, after my outing, foolish and selfish though it was, I can understand the desire for stimulation beyond the humdrum everyday. At the same moment I recognize the luxury of boredom, for searching for food, for shelter, for safety would certainly be stimulating departures from the daily dullness of eating, sleeping, and failing to fall victim to foul play—and I certainly appreciate your efforts to prevent those sorts of exhilarating experiences. (I can envisage your shaking your head at my silliness to register complaint on the grounds of boredom.)
I assume Mae will bring her darling little boy, William, named for his grandfather; thus Agatha and Felix will have a charge for the duration of the visit. I can imagine that Mae is lonely for her poet husband, as he maneuvers to elude the deputies who wish to jail him for debt which he is simultaneously attempting to discharge. It seems a profound logical fallacy to lock up someone who owes money, thus making it more difficult to secure the needed funds. I suppose the strategy is to extract funds the debtor may be attempting to conceal—or to force family and friends to intercede on the imprisoned one’s behalf. It must bear fruit in most cases; otherwise the authorities would cease the practice. Meanwhile wives and children bear the burden of their absent husband and father.
My apologies for sliding into that tangent, my dear. No doubt my own history (with Papa’s death and my family’s subsequent financial collapse) has left me especially sympathetic to Mrs Shelley’s situation. Hopefully I can provide a few hours of congenial warmth and distraction from her cares.
I have never been inclined toward daytime napping, as you know, but I must admit to feeling uncommonly fagged, and the idea of such repose is attractive at the moment. It is as if yesterday’s exhilaration must be mirrored by an equal depletion of energy—a universal law of some sort. I perhaps have a better understanding of Robin’s inclination to sequester himself in Maurice’s room hour upon hour. He must have suffered a very grave depletion of energy during his travails in the far north—physical energy, yes, of course, but even more so a kind of spiritual energy: an energy of the soul, of the psyche. I worry that, unlike physical exhaustion, simple rest will not be adequate to restoring Robin’s psychic energy. Yet I find the question of what would be adequate unanswerable. All this discussion of depleted energy has only emphasized my need for some rest. I shall continue after Mrs Shelley’s and Mr Smythe’s visit, my love.
The rest was a mistake it seems. Of course I must pass little Maurice’s door on way to our room. I have never told you but I am inclined to reach out and touch the ancient maple of the door as I pass—I suppose emblematic of a mother’s wish to touch once more the dear face of a departed child, though the gesture only brings back a momentary stab of grief, an instant’s recollection of the loss. Today was no different. Behind the door I heard Robin’s quiet movements, too quiet to even begin to guess at his activity. Yet the sound of his presence may have exaggerated the piercing stab of grief, for the moment I lay in our bed a most vivid recollection commenced. I hesitate to term it a ‘dream’ as it was far more potent than an unbidden fantasy—also it was nearly pure memory with no embellishing of the mind’s faculty for embellishment. It was the recollection of an event that I have not shared with you, nor any living soul. After Maurice finally succumbed to the pneumonia which his frail little frame had fought so courageously, and I was struck with grief so profound I felt as though I too was drowning—or, worse, buried alive with the terrible weight of the grave’s dirt pressing, pressing, pressing upon me, slowly suffocating me. Upon the doctor’s advice, you administered to me a strong draught of brandy and bade me sleep, which I had not done for days due to my vigil at Maurice’s bedside. I did sleep for a time but awoke to a silent house. Even though I knew the vision may finish me, may complete my death which began with our little boy’s final, labored breath, I summoned the strength to rise from bed. Too exhausted to bother with robe and slippers, I softly tread the cold hall in only my sleeping gown, whose ghostly form seemed to me like a shroud in my tortured imagining. I went to Maurice’s room, and slowly pushed back the door, the ancient hinges of which wept at our devastating loss. Maurice’s tiny form lay covered on his bed, just as he had lain in life, struggling to keep hold of it, only a few hours before—though I knew not how long. In my shattered state, grief-stricken and exhausted, I had lost all account of time. A wan light entered through the window, casting a sickly illumination on Maurice’s lifeless form, but I knew not if it were the pale light of dawn or of dusk. The window sash was drawn up to allow an airing of the room in spite of the chill night (or day)—as if one might draw death and devastation from the room as one does an unpleasant odor. I took an unsteady step toward our little boy and his name was upon my trembling lips—when the sheet that covered him fluttered as if a hand had moved—and again. Perhaps he was not dead after all; such mistakes have been made; doctors of physic are hardly infallible in spite of all their airs. I rush to Maurice and pulled back the covering. I searched his pallid body for another sign of life. I put my hands upon his cold face and beseeched him to move again. ‘Mama is here, Mama is here. Awake, little dove . . . awake,’ I pleaded. But there was only the bloodless hue and immobile limbs. His lids were not fully closed and beneath them I saw the lusterless orbs of the dead. Just then I felt the icy draft upon my fingers, some chill breeze blown in from the open window, and I understood that the fluttering sheet had been only that: a cruel hoax, God’s last laugh.
I believed I was depleted of tears but a few final drops fell on Maurice’s gaunt face. I wiped them away before replacing the cover exactly as it had been, and I returned to my bed, my desolation renewed and complete; I doubted that I would awaken . . . for how could my fractured heart continue beating?
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.