Letter 3 – Part 2
As I said, I was quite at the point of conceding Mrs Shelley when there was a knock upon the door. Mrs O, who must have been listening for any sign of our guest’s arrival like an Irish wolfhound, was at the door immediately and ushering Mrs Shelley to the parlor. She wore the same grey dress as she’d worn to Mr S’s, with the addition of a tartan wrap draped about her narrow shoulders and pinned at the left. There was something about the colorful accessory which magnified the crystalline quality of her eyes. I was reminded of the marble statuary at the National whose chiseled orbs were always quite vivid in their attitude, yet nevertheless made of stone—a fact the viewer can not overlook no matter how skilled of the sculptor.
I greeted Mrs Shelley, who soon was asking that I call her by the familiar name of ‘Mae, m-a-e’ (May), and I introduced the children to her, inviting her to be seated on the mohair sofa. Momentarily Mrs O brought the tea and the little scones she had prepared. It was a most congenial and cozy atmosphere. Due to the prominence of books in the room, not only filling the bookcases but stacked along the walls and sitting about here and there on the salon table and arms of chairs, et cetera; and of course Mae’s ostensible reason for paying the visit—she right away began commenting on them and inquiring of the source. I told the tale of my uncle and my sole inheritance. Mae then related how her father is a writer as well as a publisher—and she mentioned her husband in a way that suggested I was already aware of his status as writer and poet. I did not desire to demonstrate my ignorance, nor to insult her if it were a case of a wife’s assessment of her spouse’s talents and reputation being intemperate; thus I was mainly taciturn on the subject suggesting, I hoped, an air of recognition.
‘My mother was an author, as you may know,’ said Mae and of a sudden her mood turned as if the mention of her mother, long deceased apparently, struck an icy chord within her—a subject still raw to the touch, if I may mix my metaphors. ‘You have writing in your blood then,’ I said in a voice intended to recover our gaiety. ‘That may be,’ said our guest, coaxing from herself a wan smile. ‘I have written a little. My Shelley encourages me to attempt an entire book but I am not certain of a subject. Words flow from him like rays from the sun, and just as golden, only ceasing for necessary nocturnal rest; and I’m not confident he fully comprehends that that isn’t a quality granted to all in equal measure.’ ‘It may be,’ I said, ‘that he knows something about you which you are not willing to believe yet. It is not unusual for us to misunderstand—or even overlook entirely—our own gifts.’
‘You may be right,’ said Mae, her mood lightening. ‘What are your gifts, beside knowing just what to say?’ I was taken by surprise at her turning the subject back on me. ‘I don’t know that I would term it a gift, but I’m quite fond of stitchwork and perhaps have a little talent for it.’ As you know, my dearest, I normally do my stitching in the kitchen where the light is best but I had brought my current work to the parlor to help pass the time as we awaited our visitor (though the light in fact proved unsuitable and I took up the volume of Pryor instead); nevertheless, I had the piece there beside me, beneath the sofa pillow, and I removed it to show Mae. Inexplicably I was suddenly and profoundly on edge, as if a schoolgirl showing my sums to a fastidious teacher—awaiting praise or persecution, either equally possible. Why I should be so desirous of this girl’s approval was (is) unclear—yet another effect of her magnetic persona perhaps. It was a bridal piece on which I have been working: bells and bows and baby’s breath, leaving space for a date to be added, ample blues and yellows, with the thinnest thread of grey outlining the flower petals otherwise they would be lost white upon white.
I describe the piece in such detail to relate what enthusiasm Mae expressed over it, complimenting its harmonious balance and the precision of my sewing. ‘I swear,’ she said, ‘if I could create such beauty with needle and thread I wouldn’t bother with taking up the quill. But alas I was never encouraged in the domestic arts.’ It was generous in the extreme for her to say (I am quite certain I blushed, as I am quite certain I am blushing now at recounting the compliment—and I trust my darling will excuse my indulging my ego). My candle burns low. I had not intended to wax so while it waned, but I find that once the words begin to flow trying to cease them is tantamount to taming a raging river, the sort they have in the Americas, an Amazon or a Niagara. Perhaps it is because I feel closest to you when I am ‘speaking’ to you as I am now. Until tomorrow, my love--
I record a most unsettling episode. I write in the deepest recess of night, with only the last nub of a candle, and I do not wish to rummage for another, though I know precisely where Mrs O keeps them. The evening was warm so I went to bed with the window raised, against my preference as you know—although, my trepidation was less than it may have been, with Robin in the house, and also it is difficult to account but being in the company of Mrs Shelley seems to have charged me with a tiny jolt of her independent spirit. In any event we all retired somewhat early, and I fell fast asleep. I believe I slept dreamlessly until I was suddenly awake due to a noise that was some distance off yet nevertheless quite distinct. How to describe it? It was the sound of screaming, of shrieking, but not just a single terrified voice: many. As if a massacre were being perpetrated somewhere in the district. The horrific noise struck me cold. I lay in bed fully awake, terrified, frozen. But to my own credit only for a moment or two before I thought of the children and their well-being. I robed and shod myself quickly, meanwhile the horrific sound persisted. My candle was low but I lighted it and crept into the hall, where the clamor was effectively muffled. I soon ascertained the children were secure and asleep. Robin’s door was ajar however. I carefully descended the stair, feeling unsteady, which was perhaps effected by the candle’s uneven flickering, on the verge of being extinguished by a persistent draft, and the partnered light and shadow which weirdly waltzed upon the wall.
Just as I touched the floor the flame went out altogether but not before I saw that the front door was open and not before I heard the terrible noise renewed. My heart pounded against its cage of ribs as if wanting escape. One might have thought that I would be paralyzed with fear, but I kept moving, probably because the open doorway offered the only source of light, though it be just a faint twilight of contrast against the deeper shadows. When I reached the threshold I saw a figure just outside, which at first startled me; then the figure spoke, ‘I heard a similar wailing in Reykjavik.’ It was Robin, who’d sensed my presence. I joined him on the walk before the house. The street was as still and as oppressive as a graveyard. Meanwhile the terrible sounds continued. ‘What was it, brother?’ I realized I still gripped the useless candleholder; my fingers were sore with the force I absentmindedly exerted. ‘A slaughterhouse where they discovered disease among the stock. They were killing the sick animals en bloc to halt contagion.’
I listened to the terrified shrieks of the doomed. I imagined the damned being prodded by impish demons to a fiery hell. I had no sense of how near or how far the slaughterhouse was. As we stood there the terrible sounds dwindled to just a few animal voices, then two or three, then a single desperate lowing in the darkness. Then a silence more awful than the sound.
Robin and I returned indoors, and to our rooms. I lighted the candle which I set on the table by my bed, for the darkness lay heavy upon my heart.
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.