Letter 5 – Part 3
She also took from her bag two of the volumes I had lent her, and we were just beginning to discuss her reaction when Mrs O interrupted our conversation, begging our pardons, to report that Mr Smythe was at the alley door, and for some reason could not come inside—when she is speaking rapidly I struggle with her brogue. I excused myself from Mae’s company and proceeded directly through the hall and kitchen to the door. Opening it, I found Mr S and a boy of approximately Aggie’s age who was clearly an urchin of the streets. ‘I was en route to responding to your kind invitation, madam, when I spied this fellow loitering about, peeping in your windows.’ Mr S, dressed again in his regimental reds, had a hand upon the boy’s shoulder. ‘He claims to have a message for you.’ My heart began to beat against my breast. ‘For me?’ I said, somewhat breathless. ‘Yes, mum.’ He reached a hand black with dirt and coal dust into a torn pocket and produced a folded piece of paper. I had no patience for delay and unfolded the message there in the alley, thinking it must be from you, my dear, and wondering why you had not sent it by regular post, feeling in the instant it was a bad omen—all this while unfolding the single sheet of paper, which read
Unable to meet – agents watching everywhere. S
The reference to watchful agents, ubiquitous ones at that, prompted me to think of Rev Grayling and his many spies. I must say my skills to comprehend the message were diminished by the disappointment at realizing the note had not been sent by you. The ‘S’ for a signature confounded me. I was about to inform the messenger he had the wrong address and send him on his way: Then the context of the abbreviated missive came to me. ‘For whom are you looking?’ I enquired. ‘For you, mum. For Mrs Shelley.’ ‘You have missed your mark, but I shall put it into her hand.’ The boy fingered his ragged cap and attempted to run off, but Mr S still had hold of him. He loosened his grip and gave the boy a sixpense for his trouble. I led our neighbor to the parlor directly and settled him in a chair with a cup of tea as I delivered the note to its intended recipient. She explained what was already obvious. She and Shelley planned through intermediaries to meet here, hoping the clandestine reunion would be missed by the deputies who were intent on jailing her husband. Though she did not say as much, I received the impression that the secret rendezvous was Mae’s primary reason for visiting.
For an instant I felt a pang of pique, a twinge of temper at the perceived deception, but I soon realized that I would quickly stoop to an innocent charade if it meant meeting you, my dear. I can forgive a lonely heart much.
The three of us commenced a congenial conversation. Still, I had difficulty relaxing, listening to little William with his wet cough. It was too reminiscent of Maurice when he first became ill, before we knew (accepted?) the seriousness of his condition.
Doctor Higgins insisted that the compresses, if properly applied with rigorous precision, would heal his sick lungs, their potent and pungent aromatic vapors would loosen the mucous and free his lungs to breathe. For the longest time the doctor maintained that Maurice’s coughing was a positive sign, that the compresses were working. Even after Maurice began coughing blood, Doctor Higgins was emphatic that the treatments be maintained. I believed him. I wanted to trust in his practice. I could not accept that our little dove was slipping away, even though children die every day. Our little boy could not; must not.
Meanwhile Rev Grayling visited us more and more often; and more and more I thought of him as the angel of death. With the same level of insistence as Doctor Higgins, Rev Grayling insisted upon ministering to Maurice, but I knew, even from the commencement of his visits, they weren’t the ministrations of healing—they were the ministrations of dying. The Reverend accepted little Maurice’s doom long before it was inevitable. Rev Grayling’s efforts to help Maurice die were undermining Doctor Higgins’ to help Maurice live. In the end, with God on his side, Rev Grayling prevailed. How could he not?
I tried to speak to you about the battle that was being waged in our very house, joined about Maurice’s weakening body—but I only half understood it myself at the time, and you did not want to discuss Maurice and his deteriorating condition. You tended to him as a loving father but it was as if you were trying to render it unreal by not acknowledging it in words. Words have the power to create reality, so you avoided casting the deadly spell. Or so it seems in reflection.
I willed myself not to reflect on these unpleasant recollections and to concentrate on the pleasant conversation Mr Smythe and Mrs Shelley were having, largely about books. I wondered at Mae’s ability to compose herself after the disappointment of her thwarted rendezvous with her husband—but little by little I had sensed that living with the caprices of a poet must not be the easiest situation, and Mae had already grown inured to the twists and turns, the erratic highs and lows. Or, at least, she had already developed the talent for appear hardened to them. Perhaps it was a kindred ability to her ignoring her son’s worrisome congestion.
I’m afraid my need for sleep has overtaken me, my dear. There is not much left to say regarding the diminutive soiree. I shall see about posting this on the morrow—or holding on just a bit longer (to fill the space remaining on the page). Good night for now, my love.
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.