Letter 2 – Part 2
(Later.) Just as I have been describing myself as some castaway, cut off like Crusoe from human fellowship, I find I must describe an incident much to the children’s benefits which is owed to Mr Smythe and Mrs O’Hair. When I was performing my toilet, the former brought to us a bundle of charcoal pencils, a dozen all lashed together with crimson string. They are the sort that artists use, and where Mr S acquired them I cannot imagine. Nevertheless he delivered them to Mrs O, who immediately recognized their potential value to the children. A few minutes thereafter the butcher’s fellow delivered the stew meat which Mrs O had ordered—and she pressed the fellow for any spare scraps of butcher’s paper he may have in his cart. He did indeed possess some odds and ends, cut at irregular angles, that he gave to her. So by the time I entered the kitchen both Felix and Agatha were at the table sketching pictures on the ragtag paper. They all could see that I was astonished—which amused the three of them exceedingly!—and forthwith Mrs O described the series of events that led to the surprising circumstance. For their having no formal training, I was pleased that the children’s ardor was nearly matched by their skills. Aggie was engaged in a mind’s-eye portrait of the calico cat (‘Patches,’ the children have dubbed her) who comes round the alley hunting mice and kindly laid saucers of milk. It seemed to me that Aggie had rendered the feline’s legs too short but had captured the shape and angle of her ears just so. Felix, meanwhile, was at work on a scene which did not at first come to me, two fellows and a young woman; but the ironbarred window in the background shed light upon the trio. They must be Macheath, Lockit, and Polly Peachum (from the Beggar’s Opera). What a funny young man, our Felix, to be so taken by such a work. Why not knights and dragons? Or something of a biblical bent . . . Samson in chains, Daniel among the lions? Or tri-headed Cerberus? Or even Prometheus bound to his boulder?
I of course complimented the artists on their masterpieces, for I was truly impressed. Shortly I heard the front door, and it was Robin returning from his night’s haunting. I went to the hall to speak with him—though about what precisely, I know not—however, he and I stood stopped, facing one another for several moments, saying nothing. He looked the fellow who’d spent a long night. Dark semicircles drooped beneath his eyes, underscoring the paleness of the surrounding skin—and in the midst of these pools of pure exhaustion floated the ice-encased eyes of frozen blue. Robin was somewhat stooped, as if too tired to stand fully erect. He and I exchanged not a syllable, but I’m not certain if it was a silence of perfect understanding or one of complete incomprehension. Could it be both?
I smelt no liquor on him, nor tobacco, nor any other scents which would lead one to conclude he’d spent an evening of carousing and debauchery—yet Robin’s exhaustion was beyond doubt. After another moment he initiated his trudging ascent, and then disappeared into his room. We did not hear from him for the remainder of the day.
Watching his weary body move from one step to the next with such deliberate effort, it came to me that I have not inquired of Robin’s success (or failure) in his mission to reach the northern pole. His condition upon his arrival here—and his defeated and beaten demeanor since—would lead one to infer abject failure. Additionally, if he’d succeeded, would not Robin be hailed the conquering hero? Would there not be dignitaries of the maritime and geographic societies queuing up at our door? Would not the bells of London peal the momentous event? Yet, still, how near did my brother come to the goal? What obstacles did he overcome along the journey (for there must have been many)? Which ones undid him and his hopes? But attempting and surviving so awesome of a feat—is that not cause enough for celebration? Is that not itself an awesome feat?
Robin possessed so many worthy ambitions: To solve the mystery of magnetism; to chart a northern passage to the Orient; to discover new species of fauna adapted to the extreme cold and general hostility of the environment; and to tread where no man had before set foot. I recall with perfect clarity Robin’s outlining of them to us the evening before he set sail. He was positively aglow! Equal parts golden lamplight, aged brandy, and enthusiasm for the commencement of a voyage so long in planning and preparation.
It is difficult to reconcile that fellow, in a private room of the Albatross Tavern in Hastings, with this one, so defeated and downtrodden. I must gain some intelligences regarding the expedition, and surely, hence, some of its successes. Yet I do not want Robin to feel the target of a hostile interrogation, as if hauled before the Maritime Board, designed to find fault and lay blame. . . .
I must leave off for now, my dearest. Aggie is calling for me.
(I return.) Though we are a fractured family in your absence, Philip, I do feel that you would approve of the domestic scene which we managed to effect this evening. Mrs O had prepared a savory parsnip stew, though it was on the thin side, and I was able to coax Robin into joining us. I do believe he slept soundly for the remainder of the daylight hours; thus when we sat down to our homely repast, he appeared much improved. I know it is unorthodox, but I have developed the habit of allowing Mrs O to sit with us at table. It seems so unnecessary to trouble to set up the folding table in the washroom, just to have Mrs O dine alone—I believe it was a different matter when you were home, and we had a cook as well as a paid girl: the pair of them taking meals together did not make the washroom dining seem so sterile and austere. Then Mrs Walcott gave notice, as did Molly shortly thereafter—and we were left in an awkward circumstance. Fortunately, as you know, Mrs O’Hair was found in short order, on the good knowledge of Mr Smythe. At first, I had Mrs O continue the practice of taking her meals alone, but after a time it seemed a bit silly—and, besides, I missed having an adult with whom to converse at luncheon or dinner; in truth, I have found Mrs O a surprisingly able conversationalist, for an Irishwoman. Tales from her childhood and descriptions of her people’s strange ways have brightened many a dark hour. (Don’t fear, my dear, if you prefer to return to the practice of Mrs O’s dining in the washroom, that will be quite understandable.)
To rejoin my main object: the little domestic scene. The table felt pleasantly full with the children on one side, Mrs O on the other, and Robin and I filling the head and foot. We were all quiet for a time, feeling somewhat unnatural at first, and occupied with passing the biscuit plate and the jam jar and such. As we were all just settled (and I was thinking what to say—imagine, I, lost for words), it was Robin, ironically, who initiated conversation, inquiring, ‘Are these the artists?’ meaning of course Felix and Aggie. He must have seen their sketches on the table in the foyer. ‘I am most impressed,’ Robin said. You can imagine how the children beamed. ‘They must have had a tutor,’ he said to me, taking up his spoon. ‘No, none—only what I have been able to teach them. You will recall my interest in art, when we were children.’ He appeared somewhat baffled by my remark; I wondered then if he recalled our childhoods at all. ‘We had a man on the Franklin, our second steerman, who was a talented artist, had studied for a time in Berlin, but circumstances drove him to sea.’ ‘You had some natural talent,’ I reminded him, ‘when we were children.’ ‘Did I?’ ‘Yes, indeed. In fact I remember a sketch of Max, our shepherd, that you rendered quite skillfully, given the age of your hand. I suppose you do not recall Maximus; he slept at the foot of your bed for years.’ My brother chewed his food thoughtfully. ‘I recall Max, certainly, but I am not certain of the sketch. I shall accept your word for it, dear sister.’ He returned his attention to the children, inquiring of their interests and their ages (he had lost track during his years at sea). The children, as you may imagine, gobbled down the attention with more gusto than Mrs O’s brothy stew. Robin’s animation was heartening; yet I wondered at his line: Did he question the children so thoroughly to diminish my opportunity to question him? Perhaps I was reading too much into his attitude. In any event, it was a nicely homely scene, and overall a balm of tranquility. I had good reason to hope for my brother’s full recovery. The only small blight was Felix’s fascination with Robin’s missing fingers, which were conspicuous in their absence since he ate with a spoon in his remaining digits. There was no mistaking the object of Felix’s attention as Robin would bring each spoonful of stew to his mouth. I was mildly anxious that Felix may make an inquiry as to the loss of them; but he did not. Surely Robin took note of Felix’s fixed gaze; however, he volunteered nothing. Perhaps he felt the topic to be uncouth for the dinnertable.
Earlier, Mrs O had shown Aggie how to bake slices of bread softened with a few drops of cream and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar—she called them ‘faerie scones’; and when we were finished with our stew, Aggie proudly retrieved the tray of treats, where they remained warm atop the stove, and brought them to table. We filled our cups with fresh tea, and Robin, as guest of honor, was prevailed upon to sample the inaugural scone. We watched expectantly as he took a bite—and instantly aimed a look of approval at the anxious Agatha: ‘Most excellent,’ he declared, chewing and savoring. As you may imagine, the neophyte cook nearly expired of joy.
Look at the time! I must extinguish the candle, my dear, and retire. There is little more to relate of our evening. After dinner, Robin went to his room and was not heard from thereafter. My suspicion is that he availed himself of one of the many volumes in the chamber and read by lamplight. Oh, that you were here to warm our bed, dear husband!
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