Letter 3 – Part 3
It is the following day, my dear, bright and cheerful, and as I read over my mid-of-night missive I am tempted to remove it from this letter, to blot out what I cannot simply discard and thus excise my silliness—to have been so terrified at simply an unsettling sound. But I shall leave it in tact in hopes that it shall provide you some amusement should time hang heavy and you need some pointless diversion to ward off a bout of utter boredom.
Mrs O managed to sleep through the entire episode. When I inquired regarding it this morning, as she was checking the biscuits, she was thoroughly nonplussed. Perhaps her bucolic upbringing has rendered her immune to such sounds.
I have something quite extraordinary to report. There is more to Mrs Shelley than she had shared, or I should say, more to Mr Shelley. This morning, when Felix had an opportunity for unstructured reading, he brought a book from the hall and made a point of showing it to me. I did not at first grasp its significance, nor understand his zeal at brandishing it before me, holding it open. ‘Read the title page, Mama,’ he implored. Which I did: Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem: With Notes. By Percy Bysshe Shelley. Felix left me the book, implying that I may want to read it, or suggesting I should read it. I thumbed through the volume and my eyes fell upon a particular passage (it caught in my brain like a bur in the hem of my skirt):
High over flaming Rome with savage joy
Lowered like a fiend, drank with enraptured ear
The shrieks of agonizing death, beheld
The frightful desolation spread
I then felt embarrassed that I had to feign recognition when Mae alluded to her husband’s literary celebrity. I will need to read Mr Shelley so that I can discuss his work when Mae and I next meet. She departed with five borrowed volumes in hand but my distinct impression is that she is a supremely voracious reader. I must tear myself away for now, my love, and attend to responsibilities.
I have confessed to an obsession with writing to you, my dear, and now I find that letting go of the letter itself, of posting it to you in Greatham, requires an exercise of determination. I begin with a blank sheet but in speaking to you I seem to create you. It is as if I conjure you before me, and the black script which creeps across the leaf weaves you; the words meant for you become you. I am quite certain I should never make the admission to Rev Grayling. Even to me it sounds undeniably occult. Yet letting go of the letter seems very much like letting you go. Again and again. Posting them to a void, to an emptiness where they disappear forever.
My apologies, my dear; I so easily lapse into melodrama. I shall lighten the mood by informing you that Mrs O’Hair appears to have a gentleman caller. His name is Bob and he is the coal dealer’s fellow. He has been delivering our coal for months, but I’ve noticed that he has been coming round with greater frequency inquiring as to our needs, which are a paragon of consistency and hardly warrant such surveillance. For some time he has dealt directly with Mrs O, who has a solid grasp of our culinary and caloric needs. She will speak with him in the alley, so that he mustn’t leave horse and cart unattended. Last week I spied them through the kitchen window, and it seemed that their conversation was more animated than necessary for a common business transaction. Also it seemed that Bob had tidied his appearance. The grey hair that hung beneath his cap was a shorter length and more orderly, his beard was shaped, he was wearing a new apron, still besmudged by the unavoidable coal dust but not as tattered and worn. I thought little of the transformation. Then just this morning on the table in the kitchen was an assortment of dried flowers gathered with a lavender ribbon. I asked Mrs O regarding them. She became flustered, amusingly so, and was reluctant to name Bob was the source of the bouquet. I let the matter drop but found it quite charming. I know, my dear, that I mustn’t be seen to condone such alliances; and I shall be mindful. But, still, at their ages it is difficult to see the harm—other than if I were to lose the clever Mrs O to an affair of the heart.
Speaking of Mrs O, she has just delivered to me an invitation arrived by post to call on Mrs Shelley, and she has invited me to bring the children. (I fear Mrs O may have read reference to herself when she handed me the note—she came upon me so quietly, here at the table, that I didn’t take precaution. She may suspect I am reporting on her to her unknown master.) Having only begun a new sheet, I shall have ample space to add report of our visit to the Shelley residence. There is no mention of Robin, so she must intend a sort of ladies conclave. I hope Felix shall not feel too out of place. If need be I will hand him a book, and he will be quite content in the meantime.
(To resume.) I had thought the visit to Mrs Shelley was going to be the only interesting event of the day, but I was mistaken. Not long after I left off writing (about mid morning) Felix came to me to say there was a stranger in the alley asking after his uncle. I asked Felix for further intelligence of the fellow—I must acknowledge that ever since my brother’s arrival I have half expected the district’s constabulary to come inquiring of Robin, though it is an unfounded and unfair expectation. All that our Felix was able to articulate was that the stranger had a difficult accent. I stepped into the alley. The street at the alley entrance was busy, but I found no man loitering about. I returned inside to see if I could extract anything further from Felix. Before I could commence my interrogatories, however, there was a knock at the door. Mrs O was up to her elbows in the dough she was kneading for our kidney pie, so I went to the door myself. Standing there was a tall fellow in a black coat. He had a reddish grey beard and in hand was an odd-looking cap, also black. ‘Good day, madam,’ and he definitely bore a foreign accent, perhaps German or eastern European, I thought. ‘I am inquiring to locate Robert Walton, master of the Benjamin Franklin.’ I asked him his name, to which he proffered a card, almost as if he’d been keeping it in his funny-looking cap. In handwritten script was his name and a street address. ‘And your business with Captain Walton, Mr Andropov?’ ‘I was carpenter on the Franklin, Mrs Saville, and I am in possession of the captain’s chest.’ So this fellow, apparently a Russian, knew my name. Below his left eye was a scar that ran beneath his beard. ‘Do you have the chest with you?’ I inquired, glancing toward the street for a dray or cart, some sort of conveyance. ‘No madam. The captain’s locker is safely stowed at the room I am renting.’ He nodded toward the card in my hand. I assured him that I would give my brother the message but he was not at the moment available. Mr Andropov thanked me and replaced his odd, brimless cap to his head, and by doing so I saw that the hand holding it had only the first finger and thumb, which convinced me beyond doubt he was a member of Robin’s crew.
Robin was in his room. It would have been simple enough to install the Russian in the parlor and rouse my brother, who likely would be quite pleased to recover his seaman’s chest. Yet I chose to send the Russian away. It was as though my brother had escaped horrible death in the plutonic land of ice, and in the person of Mr Andropov it had come calling for him—to complete what it had begun. I felt a maternal need to keep the Russian from my brother as if Mr Andropov were a personification of Death. It is an irrational idea and no doubt wholly unfair to the gentleman who obviously remains loyal to my brother. I resolve to be more clearheaded on the matter. I placed the card on the foyer table, where apparently my brother discovered it while I was calling upon Mrs Shelley—for Robin was absent when the children and I returned. In fact, he is absent still, which is a trifle worrisome. I remind myself he survived the Arctic waste so surely the streets of London will not be his undoing.
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.