Letter 5 – Part 2
I’ve never shared this story with you. When I awoke, now with full light at our window, the visitation to Maurice’s room seemed patently unreal; it seemed replete with the residue of a terrible, terrible dream. Now it has returned as a dream which like memory confirms the reality of the event. I used to feel that Maurice’s spirit lingered in the house, in his room especially. That is why I was loathe to separate Agatha and Felix by replacing one of them to Maurice’s vacant room—though my own rationale wasn’t clear to me. If something of Maurice remained, I did not want him feeling unwelcome . . . on account of his merely being deceased. (I know how it sounds, especially now that I have articulated it.) Nor did I want Aggie or Felix infected by Maurice’s death—not the disease which ravaged his lungs, mind you: rather I thought of death as a condition into which they could be persuaded—just as the devil was seen to lure young Puritans into his ranks, to write their names in his black book. Vaguely I imagined death attracting them from the realm of the living to his own realm: the cold and colorless realm of death.
It is true that when Robin arrived I had little choice but to put him in Maurice’s unused room. Beyond that, however, my concerns did not apply to my brother. He had already visited the icy region of the dead and had managed to return. Of course I was not thinking so lucidly at the time. Only in retrospect can I sort through my thoughts and feelings, can I begin to make some sense of them (though I suspect there is meagre sense to be made).
I have gone on so, I barely have time to prepare for my guests.
For this visit, Mae was a paragon of punctuality. A hired girl had transported William, carrying him in a sling around her neck. Poor thing, she was thoroughly fatigued when they arrived. Mae dismissed the girl, who I think was barely older than Agatha, with the instruction to return in two hours’ time. However, I insisted the girl stay and keep Mrs O company, thus affording her the opportunity to take some refreshment. That decided, we convened the visit in the parlor. Mae has the fairest complexion, and the exertion of walking had added paint-strokes of ruddiness which stood out especially in the context of the indigo dye of her dress. I noted that William had inherited the characteristic from his mother, as his thin cheeks were quite flushed. Shortly his coughing commenced, and I began to fret that the scarlet patina was more ominous than a simple dermatological trait. Felix was entertaining the boy with some of his old blocks. I instructed Felix to return to his lessons; he began to protest that they were complete but he recognized his mother’s tone and exited the parlor, no doubt to find his book. Leaving the child was not a sacrifice. Mrs O had brought us tea, and perhaps the perceptive Irishwoman was of a similar mind: Shortly after I sent Felix away, Mrs O asked if ‘Miss Aggie mightn’t lend a hand in the kitchen.’ William sat on the rug between his mother’s legs and manipulated the wooden blocks for his amusement. He seemed to be trying to make words or pieces of words—the early indications of a prodigy, which would not be surprising given his parentage.
After Mae had had some tea and we had dispensed with the usual pleasantries, she inquired as to whether Captain Walton were at home. Hearing him called that, though perfectly appropriate, threw me a bit off-center for a moment. Perhaps his entitled nomenclature spoken aloud made real certain aspects of his voyage which had remained in the region of abstraction in spite of my knowing their veracity and validity. After all, one could not look upon poor Robin without accepting as fact that he was the survivor of hardship—and only just. Still, it seems odd, even to me, that such a simple utterance could affect so profoundly one’s perception of the material world; and I wonder if it was not so much the phrase itself—‘Captain Walton’—as the way Mae had said it: her voice and intonation mantling the words in authority. I could imagine Robin’s men pronouncing their master’s name in just that manner as they looked to him for guidance, for strength, for resolve in their bleakest moments—the name carrying their dependency on him to lead them out from the baneful bergs of ice into open water and an unencumbered path to their homeport. And he did; Captain Walton did.
These impressions, or the skeletal framework of them, passed through my mind in that unsettled moment before I responded to Mae’s inquiry that Robin was at home but most likely engaged at present—though in truth I have little idea what Robin is engaged in during the long hours he remains sequestered in his room—other than, it seemed, sleep.
‘Why do you ask?’ I enquired. Mae hesitated before reaching into the bag she had brought with her and deposited near her seat. I imagined it held items for little William; and no doubt that is true too. At present, however, she removed some papers, folded in half and bound with a black ribbon. She held the small parcel in her lap as she spoke: ‘I have informed you that I am engaged in writing something. I believe it is more accurate to say I am engaged in struggling to write something. I feel that my subject draws nearer yet is still out of view. When I met you and your brother at Mr Smythe’s, it struck me as a sign of some sort. I spent time in Scotland a number of years ago and while there I conceived of a yarn about a captain and crew who explore the Polar region. I heard stories of such explorers from the mariners who counted Dundee as their homeport. I wrote the beginning of a narrative about such an explorer. I have copied it out here’—she indicated the papers in her pale hands—‘and I was hoping that Captain Walton may be so kind as to read the embryonic tale and share his unvarnished opinion, especially in regards to its air of authenticity. I did not think this would be my subject matter—in fact, it seems rather far from it—but the chance encounter . . . well, it isn’t wise to debate one’s Muse when she finally begins to whisper in one’s ear, is it?’
She proffered the small bundle. In truth I am dubious as to the wisdom of Robin’s poring over Mae’s narrative. He seems reluctant to take up the pen on his own behalf—he has yet to comment on the literary projects described by Mr Havens, of the Geographic Society, whose card rests in the drawer of the foyer table. Nevertheless, I accepted Mae’s offering and assured her I would share the pages with Robin.
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.