Letter 1 – Part 1
I have the most extraordinary news—Robin is home! He arrived quite unexpectedly, no advance word whatsoever, and I must say I did not at first recognize my own brother, he has changed so in these (can it be?) these three years. Agatha and I were with Mrs O’Hair in the kitchen boiling currants to put up (Mrs O is quite knowledgeable in the methods of preservation—the brutal Londonderry winters of her youth, she says—I think you will take to her and not find her, well, Irishness unforgivable), and therefore I did not hear Robin’s conveyance stop before the house. Then Felix was in the kitchen lisping that a man was in the foyer. Heavens, I thought, Felix has let a beggar into the house—for who would be calling so early in the morning; and Felix’s sweet nature, well, you have said it, too much sugar can be a deficiency. I was thinking perhaps I should send Felix to fetch Mr Smythe across the alley, to send away the fellow—but I recalled Mr Smythe’s gout has been a particular bother of late, so I thought, no, I must see to this new arrival (if we execute the plan I’ve suggested to you, to take in a boarder, or two, I must become accustomed to a strange man, or two, about the place and assert my rules as lady of the house—I know you have said that I must exercise my will to run a proper home, my dear; and I recalled it just then) so I dried my hands and removed my apron, as to not offer the appearance of a domestic but rather said lady of the house, and went to see to this stranger inside our door.
The moment I stepped from the kitchen, fragrant with boiling currants, I was assailed by the streetbeggar’s odor, accented, I realized, with the tart smell of the sea and its wretched wharfs—and perhaps it was then that the idea of Robin’s return began to come, shyly, almost like a secret I was keeping from myself. In the foyer, the first item I saw was his sailor’s duffel, a collage of unwholesome stains, propped against the wall. I half expected a gruesome yellow-incisored rat to scurry from its jumbled contents.
But my word, Philip—the fellow himself! Frightful only barely begins to touch upon his appearance. His topcoat was scarred with stitches and patches, its hem loose and frayed. His trousers were also stitched and worn shiny and thin at the knee, his shoes a wreck, one with the buckle absent altogether and made fast by leather strings wove in an uneven web. I swear all this came to me in the flash of a moment, as if I’d studied the poor wretch’s portrait of an afternoon at the National.
But his face! Framed in a wild mane of hair, bleached seasalt grey, the same as his beard, both untouched by barber for months, if not years—it gave him the look of a lion, but not a powerful predator, rather an aged lion-emperor, his pride usurped, left to await the end, alone, and beaten.
Beneath the wild, untrimmed beard his cheeks were gaunt, which made me realize his overall thinness, like a refugee of famine. Even his fingers were elongated, the knuckles standing out like stones beneath the mummified skin, tarred black with dirt and wear. I thought at first the small and ring fingers of his left hand were oddly turned under, out of view, but no . . . they were missing—only their uneven stubs remained.
When I stepped toward him he turned his eyes upon me, and then I knew him, I knew my brother had returned after three years at sea. I knew him though I’d never seen eyes like these: blue, yes, but the blue of ice, of seafrost, like his time in the Arctic waste had frostbitten his eyes, left them permanently cold and—I fear to write it, as if writing it may make it a sentence and a harbinger—cold and lifeless. They were as sterile as two silver coins, but coins which have been retrieved from the bottom of a well where their luster has been dulled over time.
‘Blessed Saint Jude,’ I said—that was all I could say. I think I was in a state of shock, and I’d been praying to the saint so devotedly to assist my brother in finding his way home; and here he was, alive—yes, but appearing to be a revenant, a phantom form of the man who sailed from Hastings that sunny day, captain of his own ship, which he’d christened the Benjamin Franklin, gleaming in the forecastle with strength and optimism.
Not a word for two whole years—the last letter had arrived from Arkhangelsk, more than six months in its own travels. Excited still for the expedition, except a strain of loneliness had already crept into his pen and colored the ink.
I’m sorry, my darling, I’m running on now about things you already know. It’s just that I’m lonely myself—I can’t speak with Mrs O’Hair, not as an equal of course, nor to the children. I do wish that you would conclude your affairs and return home to us. That would set my spirits aright.
I end for now
With all my love,
Because the last few lines consumed so little of the sheet, I have decided to hold on posting the letter, just a bit, and perhaps add another day’s musings.
First, allow me to apologize for my self-indulgent lines above. I know you are toiling on our behalves, and I needn’t increase your burden by tossing on the weight of my loneliness. Who am I to claim loneliness in such a bustling house, under a roof and amid furnishings that your hard work has secured for us. My mind and my heart never forget it, my darling, but sometimes my hand runs ahead of my thoughts.
Please do not be upset, but I put Robin in little Maurice’s room—I knew not where else, and he doesn’t have means for other lodging at the moment. Not to mention he needs looking after, the care of family until he is quite himself again. I know that Robin’s presence will be good for the children. They have missed a man in the house since you’ve been away. I don’t mean to suggest that Robin can take your place, not for a moment do I mean it—but I must admit that even I anticipate feeling easier with him here. There have been many nights when I have felt your absence keenly and lay awake listening to every creek and shudder of this ancient house. And when the weather is warm, and the windows have to be raised, I am watchful indeed, starting at every noise from the street, every footfall, every voice, every shut door, every wincing hinge. Sometimes I rise from the empty-feeling bed and check on the children, at least that is what I tell myself, but in truth I think I am just looking for human companionship. At those dark hours I sense the weight of your long absence most acutely, and I just need to stand inside the children’s doors and listen to their breathing. I don’t bother with a candle for my vigil, not wanting to disturb them—and besides you’ve always said my powers to see in total gloom are positively feline. Though I fear all the stitchwork has dulled my eyes somewhat—but it brings in a few pennies, and I do enjoy it. I really do believe that had I the good fortune to have been born male I should have liked to have been a painter or some other sort of creative artist. Thank you for indulging my fantasies. I know you believe them unhealthy, and that it’s better to stay grounded in the material world, where my nerves are steadier.
You are right to say, of course, and I do believe my brother’s return will help to calm me. Between the clever husbandry of Mrs O’Hair and Robin’s influence, I know I will be quite right again, and not be starting at every leaf fall. And I do find writing to you a comfort. I hope my wandering missives are not too taxing upon your constitution, for I would not wish to add to your cares—I know that the affairs which keep you away must be very taxing and burdensome indeed.
(Later now.) There was a most terrible shouting—one would think a murder was taking place—and at first I believed it was from the street. I was working at my stitching in the kitchen (in the morning the light is so much brighter there than in the parlor), and Mrs O and I looked upon each other quite startled, and I wondered at Felix, whether he was out of doors—but then the shouting continued and I realized it was coming from inside the house. I went to the hall, where both Felix and Agatha were standing holding hands, for the children too were a little shocked, and I realized the voice must be coming from Maurice’s room, that it was Robin who was crying out. Mrs O had followed me to the hall, and I asked her to take the children to the kitchen for some milk while I saw to my brother. I went upstairs and tapped on Maurice’s door; I did not anticipate a lucid reply as I could hear Robin speaking, though in no coherent manner. I gently opened the door. The curtains were shut tight, which rendered the room most gloomy, yet I saw well enough to notice that Robin had ejected the blankets from himself and they lay upon the floor in a quite twisted disposition. Robin was on the bed in a spasmodic reclination, and even with the dim lighting I could see that he had perspired through his nightshirt and beads were still heavy upon his brow. I quickly turned away when I realized Robin’s state of undress. I thought for a moment that my entering the room had stirred him and he was speaking to me, except his words carried no meaning. I used my hand to shield his nakedness from my sight and I looked at his face, his eyes darting to and fro beneath their lids, and his lips muttering the inarticulate sounds. I listened closely to try to snatch a word or two, but I wasn’t even certain then that he spoke English in his day-terror. Robin was always a quick student of languages, and who knows in his long travels what strange tongues he’d acquired. That thought made me recall Acts: What if Robin is a messenger of some sort? And I recalled my doubting of Him—I’d prayed so fervently at little Maurice’s bedside, begging God to heal Maurice’s lungs. You tried to pull me away, my darling, urging me to rest myself, reminding me that Agatha and Felix needed their mother. But I knew if I was devoted enough, if I pulled the pleas to spare our little one from my very soul, spaded them up from my blackest, richest soil, soaked in my very heart’s blood—God would hear them and would be moved to act.
But no. Instead I had to hold Maurice’s hand while he slowly drowned in his own bed. The small hand that went from feverishly hot to cadaverously cold in my desperate grasp.
What if this is the prayer that God answered? He’s returned my brother to me, as if resurrected from the dead, for that is how I’d begun to think of him, dead and gone, his body sarcophagused in ice. Now he’s returned and perhaps bearing a message. It would be a comfort to believe in Him again, to feel His presence and not an utter void in the dark night--
Listen to me! Or rather do not! You will think I’ve gone daft. Spinning on about such stuff better left to philosophers of divinity.
Robin seemed to settle himself and was calmer in his sleep, so I crept from the room and went to reassure the children, who, I discovered, were quite content under Mrs O’s gentle hand. She’d given them some sweetbread soaked in milk—just a small wedge; she is mindful not to spoil their appetites. Mrs O developed an attachment to the children very promptly. There’s something in her eyes when she looks upon them, Felix especially, that seems to be recognition, as if they remind her of other children, her own perhaps—but the memories would have to be very old ones as she is well beyond her childbearing years, well into her fifties I should think, maybe even sixty. The word that comes to mind when I think of Mrs O is grey—grey hair, yes, and eyes, and her two everyday frocks are shades of grey too. Yet it’s more than all that: There is a grey cast that forms a sort of backdrop in spite of her generally cheerful and industrious demeanor. It’s like she has emerged from some gloom and she is determined not to let it get the better of her; still it lurks there, just at her heel.
I’m sorry to run on so, my darling. You will accuse me of projecting drama onto my colorless little life. I think I hear Robin stirring—he at least was restful after his episode of ‘night’ terrors. I must have Mrs O prepare him some nourishment. Until later, my love--
I trust you won’t be cross that I’ve lent some of your older clothes to Robin. The clothes he arrived in were quite beyond salvaging, and the few items of apparel in his duffel were little more than tattered rags. There is a trunk coming from Hastings, perhaps, which may contain some clothing. I must say ‘perhaps’ and ‘may’ due to its being quite difficult to extract any certain intelligence—and I did come to feel very much like my brother’s interrogator; and as soon as I realized that, I refrained from further questioning as I did not want Robin to feel the target of investigation.
Let me take a few steps backward, my dear. It was nearly the hour of noon when I heard Robin upon the stair and I went to him straight away. Mrs O and I had been listening for him, or for another episode, all morning, and she was prepared to execute his breakfast as soon as he had roused. Robin sat upon the fourth stair as if he could go no farther without risk of faltering altogether. He had managed himself into his threadbare pants in addition to his nightshirt, but his feet were bare, and I had to resist the repulsion I felt at the sight of them: ashen grey, with dirt I suppose, and missing toes, his three smallest toes, one from his left foot, two from his right. ‘You must be famished,’ I managed. ‘Let me help you to your room, and Mrs O’Hair will bring you some tea and food momentarily.’ Mrs O carried him up a pot of tea and toasted bread with her currant jam. I can tell she is a trifle wary of him, though she hasn’t said as much. If she knew him as I do, if she’d known him in childhood and his exuberant youth—then she could have no trepidation whatsoever. For Robin was the most assiduous, studious and kindhearted boy, though solitary I must acknowledge, especially in his youth, spending hour upon hour in Uncle’s library, reading and forming (apparently) his design to explore the Arctic region. To place his name alongside Magellan, Columbus, de Soto. He would’ve liked to go to school, would’ve liked to in the worst way, but of course that wasn’t possible—I know, my darling, I need not remind you; you married a dowerless girl.
To return to events, after a time, Mrs O retrieved the teapot and such from Robin’s room—he had drunk every drop of tea but barely nibbled at the toast and jam. It was then that Mrs O suggested that ‘Master Robert may like a bath, mum,’ and I realized she was quite right to suggest it. She began heating water while I went upstairs to broach the topic with Robin, who was at first reluctant but on account, I came to discover, of his having no decent clothes to dress into afterward. So I resolved that the only answer was for Robin to borrow some of your things, my dear—again, I hope you shall not object. I selected the items which I believe you consider your least favored, which is why you left them when you went on your business affair. Robin emerged from his room having to keep hold of the pants, they were so large upon his shrunken frame, and the shirt hung like a sail on the mast of a becalmed ship. I had no true idea of his thinness until I saw him in your clothes, you who has always been so lean, my love, due to your great love of walking. Robin has become as gaunt and as wiry as one of those dogs who live in the streets, hunting for scraps—and also as chary, I should say, for my brother gives the impression of always being on alert, of constantly glancing over his shoulder, or rather, of constantly wanting to. The ill-fitting clothes were sufficient for him to reach the washroom, where Mrs O had drawn him a hot bath. While he soaked, Mrs O made the clothing more serviceable, fashioning loops and a drawstring to cinch the waist of the pants, and gathering the shirt into pleats in back with some well-placed stitches—all quite clever really, and done with unexpected speed, though her eyesight has faltered over the years, she tells me, and she had to squint at the close work of sewing.
Meanwhile, I recalled that Mr Smythe had some knowledge of barbering, in his younger days, thus I went across the alley and spoke with him; luckily his gout was not so insufferable, and it afforded him an opportunity to exercise a skill that had long lay dormant. He required a moment to ready himself but presently he was at our door, shears and comb in hand. The irony struck me then: here he had come to tidy my brother’s appearance, while Mr S had allowed his own to lapse in his widowhood and infirmity. His hoary hair has grown wild, and his white muttonchops quite cover his ears, while his brows are like unfolded snowy wings of owlets above his eyes. To facilitate the barbering, we set a kitchen chair outside the alley door, and Mr S went to work. Felix and Agatha sat on the stoop fascinated by the transformation of their uncle as Mr Smythe deposited long gobbets of hair into the gutter. I checked his progress now and again, and I found the metamorphosis startling too . . . or perhaps increasingly unsettling would be a more apt characterization. For on the one hand, Mr Smythe’s barbering definitely rendered Robin more presentable—he had looked the part of the ruffian and wharf-dweller—but that mask had been obscuring Robin’s gaunt and haunted physiognomy. His hair and beard were trimmed and shaped for parlor society, yet he appeared a man whose parlor stories would be grim tales of tragedies barely survived. I believe even Mr S was taken aback at the face that emerged from the marble, as he chipped away with his sculpting shears. As he finished I told the children it was time to return to their studies, and they were decidedly pale. I was hoping, I suppose, that grooming my brother would assure them that we are hosting a quite civilized creature under our roof—for they barely knew their uncle prior to his expedition—however, I can’t imagine what they think of him now. They always heard stories of their Uncle Robin, his Herculean feats of autodidacticism, sequestered in our uncle’s library at Lytham House, teaching himself calculus, astronomy, geography, anatomy, and heaven only knows. I would often imagine him there, alone in the book-lined room, the meekest of fires to fend off the chill, solitary in the rambling house except for Uncle’s ancient man, William, who tended to Robin’s needs until he eventually signed onto the whaler, the Molly O’Toole, as a common sailor to learn seamanship firsthand, figuring that for some kinds of knowledge only the thing itself will do. That is to say, he couldn’t learn to captain his own expeditionary ship by books alone.
I’m so sorry, my darling—I know you are well-acquainted with your brother-in-law’s biography, but it does me good to recount things, to reaffirm them in my memory. I feel at times that the past is slipping from me, that I am perhaps thinking of someone else’s history—or not even a real person’s, rather a character’s that I have read in some author’s book, and it has taken hold of me so that I cannot separate it from my own life’s narrative (you know how easily I can become lost in a book, quite to my shame, I must acknowledge—I know you think it a personal flaw, and I’ve been trying to exorcise it during your absence, one of several qualities of the newly improved me that I believe you will approve upon your return, but I shall merely tease you with that flirtatious hint, to entice you to conclude your affairs as expeditiously as possible).
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.