Letter 4 – Part 3
Several hours have passed. Where to begin? Robin descended from his room about midday and read the note from his Russian mate; it must have been as I surmised for a bit later, at about four o’clock, Robin ventured out to meet Mr Andropov—or so I presumed, for he did not say a word regarding it. Rather, he ate then returned to his room to read. He considered taking his book to the alley, but the weather was not conducive to outdoor reading: not raining per se but there is a distinct nip in the air, a coolness that is deceptively penetrating. I wondered that the wrap I secreted away in the washroom would be adequate. I lingered in the kitchen throughout the afternoon, waiting and wondering if in fact Robin would leave the house—until finally he came downstairs and left via the front door, still without a word. I stepped into the washroom, dressed with haste, then entered the alley. I said nothing to Mrs O, who was resting in her room off the kitchen; nor the children, who were contentedly engaged in the parlor.
I knew in which direction Robin would turn on the street if he were going to Mr A’s boarding house, which is also in the neighborhood of some dubious establishments where he may have been rendezvousing with his friend. When I first entered the street, rushing but not running, I did not see Robin (and I half hoped I’d lost him already so that I could abandon the plan of which I’d already grown wary). Soon, however, I picked up his trail, spying him before the tobacconist’s just before turning onto Taviton. The streets were of course bustling, which made it more difficult to keep track of Robin but at the same time it helped to obscure me, a solitary woman on the walk. Our district seems filled with such women—poor widows, perhaps, scraping by, and women with families who must labor to provide roof and table for their children. I count myself fortunate, my dear, to only be among them in the crowded street and not in sorrowful circumstance. I had distracted myself and nearly forgotten my primary object: to spy those who are spying my brother. To do so I was required to retreat to a position which made it exceedingly difficult to keep Robin in view. However, there was no remedy for the conundrum; I fell back. (Is that not the term generals use to describe the battlefield maneuver? Perhaps I shall ask Mr Smythe). Fortunately Robin did not appear to be of a mind to make haste, gazing from time to time in shop windows and generally effecting the pace of one out for a leisurely stroll. Even still, I would lose sight of him in the busy thoroughfare, especially at cross streets, and at times believe I had lost him altogether. Then I would catch a glimpse at this window or that, or once pausing to listen to a beggar street musician sawing at a ragtag viola.
My watching was of course complicated by my also watching for those who may be watching Robin. There was no shortage of candidates. I tried to think what Rev Grayling’s good Christians would look like on the streets. I could not form a definite picture. They may be man or woman, old or young—a child even, only Agatha’s age, but a boy, an acolyte on Rev G’s altar. I imagined the Reverand’s congregants, convinced as I was that his informants were members of his church—though likely as it was, it was still only surmise.
Suddenly a new thought came to me: What if I cannot observe the observers because they are already observing me observing Robin? My imagination then fired a new tableau, and I saw myself walking along the busy street: A woman of medium height, narrow of shoulder but perhaps that defect is somewhat hidden beneath the woolen wrap; brown hair gathered in a bun beneath my hat but with some stray strands falling down (I could feel them against my neck); long-fingered hands at the ends of my dress-sleeves, cadaverously pale save for the stains of ink, the dark marks of these compulsively written epistles; and a face whose narrowness complements her shoulders—but what its expression? Probably a trace of worry just now, in the set of the jaw and a gathering of horizontal lines at the eyes; yet also a spark of determination fired from the maternal instinct; and I would hope an overall intelligence, largely communicated via the eyes and brow, sea green and wide set, respectively. And should my hat blow off in a forceful breeze, an all but impossible occurrence due to its black ribbon being tied in a bow beneath my chin, one may note the early grey at the temples, like hoarfrost selectively formed, or (better) ash fired by fret and clinging fast.
Yet there was nothing to be done about the observational situation—other than to keep Robin in view and hope that in some way I may discover those surveilling him. The streets were darkening, and I had no wish to be out, an unescorted woman, at full night. Besides, it would become increasingly difficult to maintain my brother’s track, even with the efforts of the lantern-lighters. Fortunately Robin had not taken such a circuitous path that I had lost my orientation. I knew precisely where I was and how to return home. Robin paused at the cart of a vendor who was selling some sort of broiled and heavily spiced meat, mutton perhaps. Robin purchased some of the meat in brown paper, conically formed; then continued his amble, eating with his fingers as he walked. The outing had stoked my appetite and I did have a few pennies in the pocket of my dress, but I found the smell of the greasy and exotically spiced mutton rather nauseating. I nodded to the black-bearded, swarthy-skinned vendor as I passed by his aromatic cart.
Robin turned into a narrow street that was of a decidedly darker character. I hesitated to follow; however, there was no visible danger—only silly womanly fears—so I stayed the course. Before I could enter, a pair of fellows hurried into the ancient street ahead of me. There was something about their tempo and intensity that suggested they may be following my brother. Even as I drew the conclusion I knew it may just be the result of my overly energetic imagination. But whether genuine or fanciful, my belief about their intent spurred me onward regardless of the street’s shabbiness. The differences between Taviton and Harrow Street were abundantly clear, especially in regards to the latter’s squalidness. The sheer population marked it as a street of especial meanness—it seemed thousands had been lodged in a space meant for just a fraction that number. And every age was represented out of doors, from infants to the elderly, and each exuded its unique brand of want and woe, from the wailing of babes to the cursing of the mature and the moaning of the agedly infirm. The facades of the squat buildings were near black with grime, and boards or tattered blankets covered the majority of the windows, the panes of glass shattered, no doubt, through a long history of hostile domestic frays.
Seeing all the various manifestations of want it came to me that maybe the fellows following Robin were not agents of Rev Grayling (now, suddenly, it seemed a ridiculous premise), but rather ruffians who may believe Robin a somewhat prosperous person. He was, after all, attired in your older garments, cleverly tailored by Mrs O’Hair; thus he was costumed as a gentleman in comparison to the throngs on the street, this street in particular. (I know that it must be worrisome to think of me there as well, but I obviously came to no harm as I am telling the tale—the curse of the first-person narrator, if this were a mere story spun to amuse of a winter’s evening.) One of the fellows following Robin, as I interpreted their intention, wore a coat of vivid green, worn, patched and soiled but still an unusual hue in this dun-tinted street. As such, I was able to keep track of him more easily, while Robin himself was fully obscured among the unwashed multitude. People were bumping into me, or I was bumping into them; indeed, there were so many milling pedestrians, like cattle in a crowded market, it was difficult to say which. Throughout, I kept a sharp eye on the green coat. Hence I was fully aware when the vividly appareled fellow and his more somberly dressed companion disappeared between dilapidating buildings down a narrow alley, lined, I soon discovered, with all manner of cast aside crates and other less wholesome refuse.
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.