Letter 2 – Part 3
Greetings again, my dear. We have just concluded a visit from the oddest little fellow, a Mr Haven, of the Geographic Society, an undersecretary of some sort, coming to call on Robin. At first, it seemed he was come on behalf of the Society, but I am not certain that he was not more representative of his own designs. He arrived at our door at some half past ten; Robin had only just risen and taken his tea. Felix opened the door, for Mrs O and I were engaged in the kitchen. I discovered he had a caller when Felix was at my elbow proffering a card. I had Felix install the new arrival to the parlor whilst I went to the alley to alert Robin, who had taken out a chair and was reading. Robin’s reluctance was clear but in a moment we were seated with Mr Haven. What an odd-looking man. He wears an especially high collar and a long coat—I imagine in the hopes that it all gives him the illusion of height. In fact, the impression is just the contrary, as he seems to have fallen in to his apparel and may require some assistance in climbing out. Bushy brows, a pencil-thin nose, and full (nearly Negroid) lips show in the recess of his starched collar. He began by making certain that Robin was indeed master of the Benjamin Franklin—perhaps his makeshift clothes and worn-thin condition did not present the expected image of ship’s captain, of Arctic explorer. Once reassured, Mr Haven began asking Robin about the particulars of his adventure, and I thought, ‘How fortuitous; I have been wanting to gain such intelligences and now this strange little visitor can act as the instrument of their extraction.’ Or so I believed at first—however, it soon became clear that Robin was unwilling to divulge much to his inquisitor, especially in terms of specific details. He confirmed his essential route—through the Norwayan and Barents Seas—and his essential objects—the root cause of magnetism, etc., etc.—but beyond that already familiar terrain, Mr Haven’s own explorations were inconsequential. Robin deflected his interrogatories with consistently cryptic and vague responses. Eventually Mr Haven decided upon a new stratagem (Mrs O had brought us tea, and for a long moment the Society’s undersecretary held his cup and peered at the surface of his libation, as if answers to his queries may be found there). He said that a paper for the Society’s journal would be most valuable; then Mr Haven entered into such circumlocutions that I was not entirely certain at what he was aiming—that a book, presumably about Robin’s explorations (in addition to ?, in lieu of ? the aforementioned paper) may be even more valuable—however, such a book would not be published by the Geographic Society, but rather via a private firm, and Mr Haven seemed to be offering his services as agent . . . something to that effect. I noticed that as soon as Mr Haven embarked upon the topic of a book, Robin began to grow uneasy. I feared he was entering into a state akin to the one Mr Smythe’s traveler’s tale delivered him. The difficulty I experienced attempting to decipher the undersecretary’s design was exacerbated by my maintaining part of my attention on my brother, watching for signs of his slipping further along the unhealthful track.
Robin kept hold of himself—though my perception was that it took some doing—and finally we were able to extricate ourselves from Mr Haven’s company; I expressed our appreciation for his visiting and assured him that Robin would consider all that he had intimated (I did not mention that chief among the goals of consideration was determining precisely what the odd fellow had proposed). I thought that perhaps Robin and I may begin such consideration as soon as our guest departed; instead, my brother returned to his seat and his book in the alley, though the day was turning grey and whispering the possibility of rain.
(The following morning.) It is unlikely, anymore, to sleep so soundly through the night, but I did so. I believe my sleeping has been so poor for so long that utter exhaustion at last caught me up, and did me a good turn. As I was dressing I realized I knew not whether my brother was in his room or out on another ramble. When I stepped into the hall I listened at his door but heard nothing. Even if he had been muttering in tongues it would have been a relief (of sorts). Downstairs, Mrs O was already at work mixing the ingredients for biscuits. She had only got a pan of them in the oven when Felix, our early riser, appeared in the kitchen, his hair still needing a thorough wetting and combing; and he had a most perplexed countenance. I was cracking eggs in a bowl for Mrs O to scramble, with a pinch of salt and dried onion. I asked Felix what the matter was, and he asked us if we had taken any paper or a pencil. Upon waking he had gone directly to the table in the parlor where we had selected to store the art supplies; and he was convinced it had been depleted. Perhaps he had merely lost count, I proposed (though I know that would not be like our Felix, who has many of the business traits of his father). However, he was adamant that he had known the precise number when he retired. To his credit, Felix was not displaying childish pique but was nevertheless resolute on the matter. I assured him that I would reach the bottom of the subject, and he went about his morning ablutions. In a few minutes Agatha was downstairs, and Mrs O was setting out breakfast. Still, my curiosity about the paper and pencil clung tenaciously; and at my earliest opportunity I absconded upstairs: Mrs O and the children were thoroughly engaged in their respective tasks, and had no thought of my whereabouts. In the hall I at first went to my door, even masking from myself my true design. I stood with my hand upon the knob listening for sounds from Robin’s room; there was none. I thought perhaps, then, he had slipped from the house. I waited before his closed door for a full minute or more. I cautiously took hold of the knob, turned it, and stepped through an opening just wide enough. The room was dim so I hesitated a moment to allow my sight to compensate. Daylight lingered at the edges of the curtained window like a narrow frame about a picture, broken here and there. Robin’s dark shape became discernible on the bed. The impression was that he was dead asleep. My slippered feet disturbed the stillness of the room but little. I went directly to Maurice’s desk, still set in the corner of the room, and I recognized the odd shapes of the butcher’s paper, and the silhouette of a charcoal pencil, greatly reduced from use. There seemed to be images on the paper but the light was too poor to make them out. I looked back at Robin, who lay upon his side, his position unchanged; the form of the blankets hid his face. I quietly took up the paper, two irregular sheets; and stepped to the window. Holding the paper close to the wall and using the weakly narrow beams that crept into the gloom, I surveyed the images that Robin had drawn there. The first was a portrait of a handsome though haggard man. My first impression was that Robin’s unpracticed hand skewed the proportions and the subject’s eyes were too large; however, soon a second idea came to me: the eyes were not overlarge but rather they suggested the same haunted expression of Robin’s orbs. They were of course in charcoal grey but I surmised if Robin could have rendered them in full palette, the eyes would have been in the same glacial blue as his own, lending them a sheen of frigid isolation. The man in the portrait had an unkempt beard, again, not unlike Robin’s when he first arrived, and he wore a fur collar about his neck. The fur was here and there matted or missing in an odd patch. It was the portrait of a wretched fellow who had been through a hellscape of ice. I examined the other piece of paper to discover a more astonishing—and disturbing!—image: Also the portrait of a man, I suppose (it may be some manner of beast), but in three-quarter profile and nearly a full body’s rendering. The being’s hair was long and black and flowing, caught in the polar wind. It is glancing back, at the artist’s perspective; and even in partial profile, how to describe the look? It was a look of menace certainly—but yet so much more, too. It is astonishing that Robin’s inexpert hand could communicate so much regarding the being—perhaps a testament to the profundity of its impact on his mind, on his soul. The being’s gaunt, hairless cheeks, with darkened lips drawn in a sneer, provokes a sudden terror in the viewer, but then almost instantly perhaps after the initial shock has washed over, one senses that the terror is also felt by the being—as when a wild animal is cornered by hunters and it is both terrifying and terrified. That realization prompted me to refocus my attention to the being’s eye, and in its frozen, cadaverous attitude there was (unnoticed before) the echoes of pain and fear. And I knew these echoes were in Robin’s eyes as well. How could I, his only surviving family, not have seen them until now, reflected in the portrait of this polar being?
I felt my cheeks dampen. I replaced the sketches to Maurice’s desk, and I blotted at my eyes with the sleeve of my blouse. I turned to look upon whom I had wronged and was startled to realize Robin was awake and looking at me; he had been silently observing as I snooped at his drawings. The profound sympathy I had felt only a moment before transformed into profound shame at my invasion of Robin’s privacy, and not simply the privacy of his room, rather the privacy of his past, of his memories, of his very soul. Perhaps my brother felt sympathy for me, too, in being caught so compromised. We peered at one another a long moment—then Agatha called for me from the foot of the stairs; I cast my eyes down and hurried from the room, which Robin’s and my muteness filled like a stifling gas.
The images have stayed with me throughout the day, like images from a fretful dream that remain to oppress long after waking.
(I was going to post this letter, my dear, but quite out of the blue Mr. Smythe has extended an invitation to Robin and me for tea at his rooms this very evening—‘on the occasion of becoming acquainted with new residents of Marchmont Street’ the invitation reads in Mr S’s crawling script. I must hold the letter until I may add report of this most unexpected development—it will perhaps afford an amusing closure to an otherwise troubling narration.)
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