Letter 4 – Part 1
I had hoped that a cheerful day would impart its meteorological demeanor to me but alas we woke to steady rain which has not ceased all morning; thus my own gloom weighs upon me like a dampened cape. I think of untying the drawstring that pulls at my throat and allowing the garb to fall to the floor, unburdening me from the unwanted weight of oppressive emotions.
Once again I feel the need to apologize for laying such unwholesome intelligences at your feet. If I were you, I would want these missives to be vessels of light and good humor, rays of brilliant sunshine piercing your already bright day. It’s a wonder you open them at all as they must land like casts of lead in your box . . . in your life. Perhaps I would be less inclined to fill these letters with such dreary thoughts if I had someone with whom to share them in person. I long to speak with Robin about his adventures in the snowfields of the north—it must have been harrowing in the extreme—but he has been little more than a specter in the house: coming and going, rising and retiring at odd hours, and, most trying of all, being as communicative as a shroud-wrapped mummy. I know I mustn’t rush him; he will tell all when he is ready. I believe I am anxious in part because if Robin were to unfold the narrative of his far-northern adventure and its hardships, he would afford me the opportunity to share some of my cares in turn, tit for tat. It is so difficult to appreciate something in the moment: appreciation is so often a product of retrospection. I’ve come to realize how much I miss the earliest days of our marriage, those nearly two years before Agatha arrived. You were of course busy with your work, needing to establish yourself, yet we managed to find hours to talk, to truly communicate, soul to soul—not that every subject was deadly serious: we would often make each other laugh—but no matter how light or how leaden the discourse we shared a perfect understanding of honesty, of communion without pretense, without barriers. The months awaiting Aggie’s arrival, when I was terrified at the prospect of childbirth, our ability to talk, my opportunity to share with you my fears, helped me to manage the terror, to prevent it from driving me mad with irrational and overpowering fears.
Then Agatha was here, pink and screaming and terribly needful; and everything changed, especially between you and me. Even amid the chaos and marrow-deep exhaustion I noticed the change, felt your keen absence even though you came and went as usual. However, our time together to talk, to truly sympathize, soul to soul, that had disappeared. I recognized the fact, noted the disappearance, but what I didn’t comprehend was that that intimacy was vanished forever, as if burgled by clever thieves who snatch their precious object then slip stealthily back into the blackest hour of night.
Perhaps these letters and my compulsive writing of them are an attempt to retrieve it, to resurrect it at last. Forgive me them, my love; you don’t know how I’ve missed you and for how long.
I fear I have written myself into quite the blue mood—and you as well! I must attempt to rectify the matter. I must concentrate on the positive. For example, the glorious smell of scones that fills the house thanks to Mrs O’s baking. She has mixed just a touch of cinnamon with the batter, so the homely scent is tinged with that festive spice. Agatha of course assisted with the recipe, while Felix, the old soul, sat in the corner reading, or perhaps more often than not glancing through the rain-streaked window at the colorless day beyond. No doubt the language difficulties of the German folk stories, borrowed from the Shelleys’ library, impeded Felix’s reading enjoyment and encouraged introspection via gazing at the inclement weather.
The wet conditions outdoors have also coaxed the wonderfully musty smell of old books to rise indoors, which nicely complements Mrs O’s baking scones. Warmth from the kitchen radiates throughout the rooms—if not in fact, at least in belief—which also adds a pleasantness to this grey day.
‘So you see,’ I tell myself, ‘your moroseness is quite ill-founded and must be quitted at once.’ This shall be my badge going forward, my dear. Perhaps I shall commit it to stitches and hang the piece where I shall view it every day.
As if on cue, the moment I completed the previous sentence there was a caller at the door. Who in the world? I thought—on this rainy day? Mrs O admitted Reverend Grayling and showed him into the parlor. I heard his voice from my place in the kitchen. I was surprised at the specific timing of his visit but not, in general, that he had come. He has been a regular visitor in your absence, under the pretense of checking on this fatherless family while you are away, but his purpose is more to do with leading this stray sheep back to the fold. Rev Grayling was standing staring out the rain-obscured window when I joined him. The shoulders of his coat were a darker black with water—his hat and his top-coat were dripping on the stand in the foyer. He turned and greeted me, gazing down the edge of his beaked nose. He is still tall in spite of his stooped posture. I invited him to sit and we occupied the adjacent chair and sofa. Mrs O was preparing fresh tea, I informed him (hoping, to be honest, he would say he wouldn’t be staying long enough for tea—he made no such announcement). I do not wish to be uncharitable to the Reverend but his presence in the house brings back with painful vividness the experience of Maurice’s death (tears come to my eyes even at the writing of it). The betrayal of his illness, the futility of prayer, the salt-laced inadequacy of comfort.
Rev G began with niceties of polite conversation then quickly came to the point of his visit, which I believed I knew. However, he surprised me by querying in regard to my brother. ‘I hear that Master Robert is returned from sea.’ I hesitated before offering affirmation, though I’m not certain why. I suppose I expected Rev G to note the miraculous nature of Robin’s return and attempt to offer it, rhetorically, as a kind of counterweight to God’s calling little Maurice home (was that not how he phrased it at the service?). I was prepared for this turn of logic; it has been a syllogism of my own since Robin’s arrival—one whose solution I reject as false, as absurd even.
I wasn’t prepared, however, for the Reverend to say, ‘Is your brother quite well? There are those with concerns.’ ‘What sort of concerns?’ ‘Master Robert’s behavior has been seen as . . . erratic by some.’ ‘Erratic? How so?’ I said, but I knew how, or believe I did—erratic in the ways he has been here, under our roof. Observed by those who do not know him, who do not know what he has endured, what he has sacrificed—I could imagine the cause of their concerns. Nevertheless I felt a surge of maternal protectiveness toward my little brother. ‘Who is the accuser?’ Rev G shifted his bulk uneasily in his chair. ‘No one is making accusations—there are those who are worried. Good Christians who have expressed their concerns.’ It just slipped out in my pique: ‘Yes, well, the Church has a long history of good Christians expressing their concerns, doesn’t it? Their concerns regarding heresy, their concerns regarding others’ sins.’
He placed his hands on his knees and thus exaggerated his stooped posture. His knuckles were red and raw from the cold. ‘Mrs Saville . . . Margaret,’ he said more mildly, ‘it isn’t like that at all.’ He became more erect. ‘There are reports that Robert has been seen having animated conversations with absent interlocutors.’ ‘So he has muttered to himself in public; that is hardly a crime against the good citizens of London.’ ‘Not muttering to himself. Actual conversation but with someone who was not present. A phantom if you will.’ ‘My brother has had some spirits since his return—who can blame him?’ ‘He was not inebriated, Margaret; he was quite sober, as it was reported.’ ‘My word, your reporters are impressively thorough. They should be in the employ of the Privy Council.’ ‘There is more: Robert seems unusually alert and watchful, as if expecting to be set upon at any moment.’ ‘My brother has been through a great ordeal; I should think it quite natural for him to still be in the mode of survivalist. That should withdraw over time.’
Perhaps Rev Grayling sensed the futility of further discourse given the state into which his visit had delivered me. Shortly he gathered his coat and hat and returned to the grey, wet world, but not before remarking that I should call upon him should I need anything—implying, I think, that I may need assistance with Robin. Mrs O was just bringing the tea as he was effecting his exit. I had Mrs O place the tray on the table, and I poured myself a cup. I had difficulty concentrating and I needed a quiet moment. I sat for a long while, cup and saucer in hand, contemplating Rev Grayling’s visit. After a time I was able to acknowledge that its most troubling aspect was my sense that the Reverend was in the right—to a degree at least: Robin’s behavior was cause for concern.
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.