Letter 1 – Part 4
(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.