Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?
Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain.
He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
-Galatians 3:3-6 (KJV)
It’s raining in Edinburgh on the day that John Irving comes home. He stands in it, facing the black door, testing out the syllables of his address in his mouth as though they’re in a foreign tongue.
“One-oh-six,” he says under his breath, watching rainwater drip from the brass door knocker shaped as a lion snarling with the ring in its jaws. He takes two steps forward, sending droplets skittering ahead of his boots. “One-oh-six,” he repeats. “Princes Street.”
Number 106, Princes Street, Edinburgh does not miraculously disappear as he says the words. It remains, tucked comfortably between its neighbours, little decorated spouts pressing up against the roof, paned windows framed with the same cream-coloured curtains that have been there since his mother was still alive. Still, it seems like the resident of one of John’s recent dreams where Princes Street is at the crossing of Beechey Island and Lancaster Sound, across the street from a grey shale field rather than the West Princes Street Gardens.
“One-oh…” He trails off before swallowing hard and raising his fingers to grip the brass ring. Water sluices down his fingers and into his sleeve, and he stays still long enough to feel it soaking into the cotton. Finally, he gives two quick knocks.
He cannot say for certain how long it is until the door opens. Seconds. An hour or more, perhaps. Time runs strangely in his head nowadays, and he could stand in front of the black door for days without noticing the passage of the hours. At last, seconds or weeks later, the door opens. A young lady stands under the arch, her dark hair tucked up into a snow-white bonnet, hands folded primly at the waistline of her apron. She gives John a long look with her sharp eyes. “May I help you, sir?” she asks.
John stares for a long while at this unfamiliar woman—a maid, he thinks, for the sort of people who keep maids and not stewards—before he finds a few words still lodged away. “For my father, miss,” he says. He swallows again, wincing and correcting himself. “I’m here to see my father.”
She surveys him again like she means to find similarities to the master of the house and the strange, hollow-eyed man before her. “May I pass on a name, sir?”
“John,” he replies.
The maid’s eyes widen, and perhaps only good decorum keeps her hands from flying up to her mouth. “Oh,” she says, breathless. “I… Yes, I’ll inform him.”
She hurries up the stairs without closing the door, and John lingers where he stands, peering in at the striped yellow wallpaper of the foyer and the herringbone design in the floor. He knows if he goes to the left, he’ll enter the parlour with all its fine furniture and ostentatious paintings of reverends and advocates. If he goes to the right, he’ll go into the dining room, never updated to modern fashions since his mother claimed that she rather liked how Georgian it looked. He’s walked through this house’s memory hundreds of times since leaving Greenhithe, and perhaps knows it better now than he did when he left.
The maid returns from the parlour side, a man trailing behind her. He’s dressed in a fine black coat, collar done up high and properly. His white hair is combed to the side with great care, and his rheumy grey eyes squint in John’s direction, taking in the sight through the haze of his age. He’s old—far older than John’s imagination provided. Age has carved into his skin, folding around his mouth and eyes, making him look unspeakably sad. He reminds John enormously of the marble busts of the great masters, detailed to give them the appearance of possessing enormous wisdom. This wisdom, it seems, has come at a price.
Then, recognition lightens the weight on his face, erasing years in the matter of seconds. “Oh, God,” he says. His hands—mottled and veiny—raise up in praise of something unseen. He holds them out like the father receiving the Prodigal Son. “Oh, John, my boy. My boy.”
John goes to him, breaking propriety like ice under his boots and letting his head fall onto his father’s shoulder, embracing and weeping when he feels arms around him.
They have tea in the parlour, dutifully brought to them by Sarah, the new maid. John finds out that Catherine left upon being proposed to by the Irving family’s favourite coachman and Sarah’s now two years her replacement, along with a new scullery maid he’s yet to see. Robert, John's father's favorite servant, is out and recovering from a particularly vicious bout of the flu, and Old Maggie is away in Aberdeen with her apparently very pregnant daughter. Servants and maids are just some of the things that have changed on Princes Street, and yet little has changed at all. His father still sits in his chair near the fireplace, drinking from the same prized bone china cups given as a wedding gift from John's grandmother, under the ever-present oil painting of a Reverend Irving from three generations prior. All that’s changed in this view is his father, looking more like the white-haired severe patriarch in the painting.
“I had no idea of your coming,” his father says in his quiet, restrained way. “I knew only what I had read in the papers, but these days, there’s no way of being certain of… Well, had I known, I would have—”
John offers his father a careful smile. “The fault is mine, I assure you,” he replies. “I meant to write, but I was delayed to Edinburgh so many times that my announcement would have probably seemed false.”
It’s only partially true. So much excitement and confusion followed the return of the Enterprise and Investigator that it was a wonder John made it to Edinburgh at all. John doesn’t mention his own mental shortcomings—the fact that his mind wandered so much that it would have been a wonder in of itself to reign himself in and write a small note. After he stepped off the Enterprise and onto English soil again, so much of what constituted him began to unravel.
“I’ll have Sarah bring my writing things at once,” his father says, cutting through his thoughts. He’s taken on the stiff-backed posture that John’s most familiar with, but his face betrays the fact that he looks at John as though he’s certain he’s dreaming. “Notes to your brothers and sister, of course. Some to your aunts and uncles. Possibly an announcement in—”
John knows he’s gone pale. “That’s not necessary, Father,” he says.
“I…” John fidgets in his lap, even after years of childhood correction on fidgeting and wandering. The Arctic has done its best and succeeded in drawing up old habits. “I’d only like our close family to know. For now, that is.”
He looks down at his hands as he says it, not wanting to see—What? Disappointment, perhaps, in his father’s eyes. He knows his father is looking at him now, finding shortcomings and flaws, seeing where the Arctic cold split his skin and let the worst of the world flow into the cracks.
It’s to his surprise, then, when his father’s voice comes back, much softer and warmer than John ever remembers. “Of course,” he says. “Only them.” Before John can see his father’s expression, he’s calling for Sarah, summoning her to the doorway of the parlour. “My writing things, if you please,” he says.
Sarah nods and curtsies before hurrying up the stairs to the study. If John were to follow her, he wonders if the room looks the same as well, if all the books are alphabetized and dusted like prize relics, or if his father’s favourite pen is hidden in the top drawer of his bureau—one that John’s used to write secret notes in the past, delighting in the slight crime of using something deemed untouchable. He’s wandering again, he knows, following those trodden dents in the floor from his father’s pacing, glancing at correspondence written in fresh ink in his father’s perfect handwriting.
His father’s voice rasps dry in his head and tugs him back downstairs to jerk him upright like he’s been thrown back into his body. “My apologies,” he says, blinking hard and shaking his head. “I… I suppose I’m still exhausted from the journey.”
He looks to his father, seeing the concern forming a tangible weight on his brow. It lingers for a moment before raising again as he nods. “Of course. Ah, your room is still the same,” he says, a deft and subtle change in subject that John finds himself thankful for. “It only ever sees use when one of your brothers comes to visit. Lewis was here last, if I remember correctly. Sarah keeps it wonderfully clean.”
“I’m sure she does,” John replies, hearing the creaks of the floorboards above as Sarah returns.
“We’ll have to make accommodations for everyone once they start arriving,” his father continues, looking around the parlour thoughtfully like he means to stuff Irvings in every available corner. John is well-aware of the number of nieces and nephews he has now. “I’ll send along word to the Clerks and Hays as well, I suppose.”
“You expect all of them to come at once?”
“I expect them to stay,” his father corrects. “Arrivals will vary, but they will all be eager to share you, I think.”
The thought drives a cold bolt through John for reasons that feel impossible to articulate. He’s never been antisocial, even though he’s disdained large crowds and incessant chatting. It may be the idea of cramming so many people into such a small space, the air warm with body heat, and the smell—
He frowns as Sarah reappears, his father’s little portable writing table and ink pot in her hands. She manages to balance it perfectly as she curtseys again, handing it to him with a smile. John can see why his father hired her; she’s quick on her feet with a quiet cleverness in her face. Unbidden, he thinks of Jopson.
“Father,” he says suddenly, just as his father opens the ink pot with a perpetually stained thumb.
“I apologise, but I think I may need to rest for a bit. Am I needed?”
“Are you—” His father gives him a quizzical look just as he dips the nib of his pen into the pot. “If you’re feeling unwell, John, then certainly. I’ll have Sarah call you for dinner.”
John nods and offers the closest thing he can manage to a smile. He leaves his teacup and saucer for Sarah but thinks of Jopson again and goes to pick it up to hand to her. She’s faster, darting around him to take the china out of the way before he can even turn all the way around. “Oh, I— Thank you,” he says, a bit startled.
She gives him a light smile and a quick half-curtsey before heading toward the kitchen.
“Sarah is as attentive as any maid ought to be,” his father says over the quiet scribbling of his pen. “Do call her if you need anything.”
John nods and starts for the stairs, pausing only once at the threshold. His hand lingers on the door frame, the fresh coat of white paint hiding all the scuffs and chips that came from a house full of rowdy children. Under his thumb, he knows there’s a mark from where Alexander jousted at the wall with a broomstick, pretending to be one of Sir Walter Scott’s knights. About a hand-length below that is the remainder of a childhood drawing of David’s depicting a smiling fish winking from a wave. It’s all hidden now, carefully tucked under layer after layer of paint to present a perfect home.
With the soft scratching of the pen at his back, John realises now that his father hasn’t mentioned the Expedition once, as if he expects that John’s returned to him after a few months and all will go back to normal.
As if John hasn’t just come back from the dead.
Rain persists into the night, speckling and warping the windowpanes and turning the Gardens into a running mess of green, grey, and black. As the grey sky fades to the black of night, gas lights are lit and cast the whole strange tableau in twinkling constellations. Coaches and hackneys rumble by and the dark shapes of people follow at a much slower pace, their bodies twisting and bending grotesquely around the raindrops. Three trains come and go, their headlights cutting through the darkness briefly before disappearing into the gloom.
John only notices this because he stands at the window, unmoving, for an hour and a half.
He does not realise the time until a knock on the door strikes him out of his mindless reverie. He flinches at the sound, finding that he needs to catch his breath. Pulling away from his post, he walks to the door and opens it to reveal a curtseying Sarah. “I’m sorry to interrupt, sir, but your father would ask if you’ll be joining him for dinner.”
The words sink in slowly, echoing about in his head and mixing with other, unrelated bits of dialogue. He blinks hard and shakes his head. “I’m afraid I’ll have to decline tonight,” he says. “I’ve got a bit of a headache and I believe it’s the sort only sleep can relieve.”
It was an honest excuse, and one as close to the truth as Sarah can understand. Claiming a grand, riotous clamouring in his head and a complete loss of time is difficult. An ache in the skull is the sort of thing that can be passed on without curious looks and second thoughts.
She smiles with an air of practised sympathy, pinching her brow and all. “Of course. Your father wondered as much and did say you might be tired. Can I bring you anything?”
“No. No, I’m alright. Thank you.”
Sarah gives a perfect curtsey before turning away. John closes the door, shutting himself back in the dark room, cast gas light and rain making bizarre shapes on the walls. For a moment, he feels like a stranger in his own home. Everything is in its exact place—two perfectly-made beds with fresh linens, two oak chests on opposite ends of the room, and empty shelves that were once filled with trinkets and scraps found by three boys forced to share the space. And at once, he feels like he has never seen the room before. It could be a room in London, Cardiff, or New York for all he knows. Strangers had slept in the beds. Strangers had lived in this house.
A wave of nausea sweeps through him without prompting, forcing him to squeeze his eyes shut against it. He feels off-kilter, regaining sea legs on unfamiliar ground. At any second, he’s certain he will fall right off his feet.
Without taking the time to change into sleeping clothes, John settles for laying on top of the sheets of his old bed. He manages to remove his boots while curled in on himself, letting them lay where they fall at the bedside. Then, he lays there, quiet and wide-eyed, watching the rain continue to pelt the window. Beyond it, Edinburgh lays like a trembling shadow, watching him with a heavy gaze.
John closes his eyes, listening to the soft tapping of raindrops, the low murmur of voices downstairs, and the muted creaking of the house. His house.
He slides into an uneasy sleep, full of flickering, hazy images of white ice, black ships, grey parks, black doors, and red—
High, bitter laughter follows him into his dreams.
106 Princes Street, Edinburgh
October 3rd, 1849.
My Dear Edward, —
I trust this letter finds you well at your new steadings. London is a diverting place and I hope you will find some degree of felicity there with all manner of distractions and excitements to keep your mind occupied. I apologise for the delay in my writing to you as I settled my affairs to go onto Edinburgh. Truly, the locomotive travel is much more expedient now than when I departed last from any station, and with far more connections to mind and plot. I will not lament forsaking the coach, however, as I was never fond of being jostled so. Fond of horses as you are, I’m of the belief that we share an opinion.
I assure you now of my health and the health of my family. Father is doing well for his age and is just as quick with his wit as ever. He’s missed me sorely and asks all manner of questions day and night as to my welfare and thoughts. He presses me to take walks for my health and reacquaint myself with the city, or to keep my mind fresh with his updated book collection, bringing it to a grand total that would open anyone’s eyes. I am far from resenting this attitude, as I can appreciate a father’s affection enormously. As for my brothers and sister, I have heard from Lewis, Alexander, and Mary in the immediate. Lewis has already sent express post that he means to be in Edinburgh before the week is out, and I feel Alexander and Mary will not be far behind. Father does not have Archibald’s newest address but assures me the post will find him, and as David remains in New South Wales, it will be a long while before he receives word, but I expect haste will be the phrase used to describe his response. Most alarmingly, I will possibly be reintroduced to Edinburgh society with a party at their insistence, and so will not be long in seeing old friends and new faces, whether I wish it or not.
With heartfelt sincerity, I hope the best for you and Jopson. Although I know you have not yet had a full month to settle into the lodgings, Charlotte Street seems a capital place. With any good fortune, I hope Jopson may use the setting to study for his examinations. If I may be of any service in the regard of his education or retention, or just as a willing ear to listen to the woes that come with such a test, never hesitate to ask. While I am sure my sentiment is plain to you, I mean to restate that I look upon you both with utmost kindness and fondness in only the way that men of our history can do. It would please me greatly to pass these sentiments on to Jopson as well and to inform him with all the strength of the language that I am enthusiastic at the prospect of his success.
I mean to conclude this letter with the confidence that both of our parties are adjusting well to their settings. Undoubtedly, both of you are busy with adjustments and new society, but please do not refrain from writing me a few lines when you find the time. Any news will find my the happiest of recipients. I remain, gentlemen, your faithful and sincere friend— John Irving
-Title comes from the Biblical Book of Galatians, which irl John Irving liked and cited in his letters. If you read through the contents of Galatians (especially chapter 3, which Irving claimed stuck out to him), you can definitely see why he liked it.
-All chapter titles are going to come from his letters.
-106 Princes Street is in fact where the Irving family lived! John sent plenty of letters from that address and it still exists!
-John Irving, Sr. was a lawyer and Writer to the Signet, and a childhood close friend of Sir Walter Scott. Irving, Jr. often went out of his way to impress his father and ask for his advice, and did so all the way up until the Expedition.
-Gas light was used extensively in Edinburgh starting around 1820. I absolutely spent an hour and a half reading a cool paper on the history of lighting in the city. Time well spent!
-I tried my best to mimic irl Irving's writing style. He tended to be very emotional in his letters and did a horrible job of trying to cover up what he was feeling, esp if he liked the person he was writing to. Hopefully I did okay! :3c
42 Charlotte Street, Marylebone
Oct. 12th, 1849
My Dear John—
I confess that I have been extraordinarily scanty in my letter-writing since coming to London and the fault entirely falls onto my shoulders for precisely the reasons outlined in your letter. Jopson and I have found ourselves hindered by our period of adjustment and by a whirlwind of social calls, the likes of which have brought a veritable wave of calling cards to our front door. It’s become such a routine that Jopson and I return from one outing only to go to another and find ourselves perfectly exhausted by the end of the day. Just last week, poor Jopson slept right through dinner and was wonderfully agitated at the thought of visiting yet another acquaintance. It seems he’s become a novelty among some of the London favourites, being promoted as he was. I, too, have become a fixture to some of these with my Commandership, but less so since it was awarded in such a boring, straightforward manner.
What with your kind offer as to his examination, he insists he’s more than delighted to accept. What more, I think we’re both a little in want of familiar company for those who have been where we have. We can only explain ourselves in loose terms so many times before feeling unpleasant and uncomfortable by the end, if I can be plain. We’re of the belief that a visit with you will be refreshing to our entire company. Provided your family has not subjected you to visiting every corner of Edinburgh to wear you down on society, we have more than enough planned parties that would crave your attendance. If you mean simply to help Jopson study, then we will accept that with equal enthusiasm.
I will not bore you with reports of furnishings or decoration, since that is far out of my realm of rule in the house. Jopson will be happy to regale how he spent three hours arguing with a draper in a conversation that nearly came to fists, which is interesting, far more so in his words (as he is very impassioned.) He also has the better ear for gossip, and my well is dry on that regard also.
As to our health, we are both well and gaining strength with the day. Jopson feels frail only at night and needs only a few drops of some concoction our visiting physician alchemised for him. He still claims headaches—though I believe he says far less than he feels. However, both of our appetites have returned to their former voracity. Whether that is a positive thing or not, we’re yet to discover.
I’m pleased to hear that you are getting on well and that your family has received you warmly. Give them our best, and I hope we can secure you for a visit in the coming months. The next few months will be dreary, of course, but I am sure we can find something delightful in London to get our minds off the incessant rain. I will take the liberty to press you for a quick response so that Jopson can plan on something other than parties he does not want to attend. I remain, as ever, you most affectionate friend— Edward Little
Mary tugs him along the walk like a mother pulling a child by the hand, even though he’s arm-in-arm with her, linked to her by a chain of siblinghood. The problem is not that Mary’s impatient (she is, but that’s for another argument), but rather that she’s always been faster than him, and eager to get onto the next appointment, social call, dinner, meeting, or otherwise. John’s become a bit more reserved in that.
“Not a more pleasant walk in all Edinburgh,” she declares, turning her face towards a birch with leaves glinting autumnal copper in the sunlight. A curled sprig of dark hair coils out from under her hat and bounces with her steps. “I’ve been on half a hundred trails in this city and there is no competition!”
“It’d be more pleasant if we could stop and admire it,” John counters.
She huffs and rolls her eyes. “I’ve barely seen a corner of the city outside of my home since Elizabeth was born,” Mary declares. “And you haven’t seen the city in years, John. We must make the best of our opportunities!”
Her point is perfectly valid, but John’s knees aren’t in agreement. The section of the Queen’s Street Gardens that she’s chosen for their morning turnabout is going by in a blur of burnished autumn colour, green grass, and blue sky, and John cannot for the life of him name a single distinguishing feature that they’ve seen. “Could we at least slow a bit so I can make the best of what we’ve chosen right now?” he asks.
Mary slows her gait to an exaggerated shuffle, earning a nudge in her side from her brother. “Come along, old man,” she quips, grey eyes bright in the sunlight. Laughter lines her mouth. “Agnes could outrun you.”
She laughs, high and bright, and trains her steps to a normal pace that John can keep up with without feeling like he’s a hackney pulled by a persistent horse.
They walk about the park, Mary folded in close to him like she means to use him as a personal shield against the wind, and John perfectly amiable to the idea. In truth, he’s just happy to be in her presence, although she’s hardly left his since the announcement of his return went out. There’s something comforting about her, though, and he wonders between if she’s gained some maternal edge since bringing three children into the world, or if he’s just happy to have his older sister back in his life. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.
“You know,” she starts, face turned up to the sun. “I had a thought earlier that you would be a perfect fixture at any party in Edinburgh. I’m not sure Father told you how you’re the talk of nearly ever parlour from here to Leith.”
“He hasn’t,” John admits, although he’s had a feeling about it. He offers a small smile. “Funny, as a friend of mine just said the same thing for himself in a letter.”
“It’s completely true. I dined with William’s cousins last week—oh, on the Moncrieff side—and they asked if I was an Irving as they’d remembered. Once I said it was true, I felt that I had to create an entire biography for you on the spot! Do you know how difficult that is?”
“It is terribly difficult!” she exclaims, patting his arm for emphasis. “I’ve only had a chance to piece together a few parts of a narrative and I’ve had to almost completely rely on books, John! So, if you hear yourself referred to alongside some event of a journey of Sir John Ross’, do not be alarmed.”
John smiles despite himself, even though something cold begins to grow and snarl within him. “I’ll try my best to restrain myself,” he replies.
Mary is flush with good humour, making her cheeks rosy and eyes bright. However, John is attuned to the subtleties of his sister’s moods and how she wears them. Curiosity and concern twitch at the corners of her mouth and the centre of her brow, but she carefully arranges them above and around a carefree smile like a fine flower arrangement. “Father’s been scarce with the stories as well, so you’ll need to tell them for clarification or within a few months, everyone will believe you personally wrestled with a bear and caught fish with your teeth.”
The chill in his gut begins to grow, spreading outward like curls of frost on a windowpane. “There is very little to relate that hasn’t been done better by others,” he says, eager to steer the conversation toward another pole. “Surely there will be some mention in Blackwood’s, or a memoir out by the beginning of next year.”
A pigeon lands on a tree bough above their heads, drawing Mary’s attention upward as it coos. “Those will not be John Irving’s stories, though,” she says without turning her head. “They will be the captains’ and the mates’ and the other lieutenants’, but I say they are poor substitutes for your own. It will be one thing to hear you referred to, but is that enough for those who know you, John? Or will I ever after be guessing the character of my brother in memoirs that will certainly crest a hill or two of poor memory before they reach the presses?”
John looks down at the packed dirt path, trodden with countless footprints in every direction. “I suppose,” he says. Immediately, he feels ill-spoken and foolish with his sister speaking circles around him.
Mary goes on, utterly unhindered. “Well, if such an opportunity presents itself, you should take it! I know poor Sarah’s been fielding calling cards for you and could make a city directory out of the things, and Father’s claimed that you’re still in the process of settling to roost, but they cannot excuse you forever. Edinburgh still exists whether the door is closed or not!”
“I’m aware, but—”
John walks in silence for a moment, counting their steps until they pass a hedge in need of a trim. “I wouldn’t know what to tell them,” is what he settles on.
“What ever do you mean? You’ve always been something of an elocutionist.”
“Not a social one.”
“Oh, honestly, you’ve never minded the sound of your own voice,” Mary reminds him with a gentle nudge to his side. “Nor the scratch of your pen. Wasn’t it you always begging for a letter from us?”
John knows his cheeks heighten a shade; he decides to blame it on the early autumn chill if Mary draws attention to it. “That’s scarcely the point,” he replies.
“Oh, is it not?”
He struggles with his words for a moment, tongue tripping on false starts before he finds any foothold that seems reasonable. “I feel that I would struggle in my explanations,” he says carefully. “The Arctic is… It’s a difficult place to describe.”
Mary raises a brow. “Ice, snow, water, and rock are difficult to describe?”
“No, I— No. That isn’t what I meant.”
“I know what you meant,” she says, lofty and yet at once serious. It’s a brilliant balancing act of intentions. “Experiences, I’m certain.”
He nods, stiff.
Mary reaches up with her right hand and gently pats the back of his own where it’s curled over her arm. If he were to look up, undoubtedly, he’d see that same sort of beatific sympathy she turns towards little street urchins and the kindly destitute. His sister is one of the most charitable people ever to smile at the entirety of Christendom, and yet he wants to recoil when that same expression is directed upon him, like he’s a sorry waif in need of charity.
“Well.” Another pat. “Keep the stories as plain as you’d like. Talk about strange atmospheres and icebergs if it suits you. If asked after the characters of the men, keep that plain as well. If they beg details—” Her hand settles on his arm, grip firm and warm. “Measure them out. They may hunger for it all they wish then, and their dreams will fill the air instead.”
They turn a corner, walking under the copper awning of an oak, sprinkling leaves in bright red sparks onto the dust-gold path. The sun draws their shadows out before them, bobbing along with their steps.
“Alright,” John says at last. If he feels defeat under his sister’s sage advice, it’s wearing the façade of another emotion. “I suppose I couldn’t put them off forever.”
“Of course not,” Mary replies, nodding in satisfaction.
For a few blissfully quiet moments, they continue their stroll, listening to the birds and the distant whistle of an approaching train. Across the hedge, a set of children giggle as their shoes rapidly tap on the cobbles.
“How many calling cards have I received?” John finally asks.
Mary grins. “Twenty-three, and that’s hardly counting the letters.”
Sarah greets them at the door when they arrive, her curtsey a flicker of movement before she holds her hands out to take Mary’s coat while explaining that their father has gone out on private business. As Mary undoes the ribbon under her chin, she gives John a pointed look. Ask, it says.
He swallows hard before busying himself with the buttons of his coat. “Sarah,” he says. “Have I received any notes lately?”
“Oh, a few,” she returns, loftily polite. On the edges of his vision, he sees her take Mary’s hat with the sort of graciousness of a churchgoer receiving a blessing. “Even one just this afternoon before you and Mrs Scott-Moncrieff returned from your outing.”
“A Mister Goodsir,” she says. “Like the gentleman in the newspapers.”
John’s head snaps up, staring at her in surprise. “Harry Goodsir?” he asks, forgetting himself.
“I think that was the fellow’s name. He was wonderfully polite. Very pleasant,” Sarah replies. “He stayed for a moment to speak to the elder Mister Irving before leaving his card, as there’s no lady in the house. I can fetch it for you, if you’d like.”
He’s too stunned by the news to do much more than nod. It shouldn’t surprise him as much as it does, as he was well-aware through bits of conversation that Goodsir was well-connected in Edinburgh; the name itself has taken up plenty of lines in newspapers and books, and occasionally found itself woven into conversations if they ever leaned toward the anatomical. Aside from the letters from Edward and the daily trawl through the news, John has had virtually no connection to his former crewmates, even though only a few months have passed since his return. The thought of seeing Harry Goodsir on his doorstep, even for a moment, jars him terribly.
Mary gives him a quizzical look as she adjusts a hem on her sleeve. “Dare I ask?”
“He was…” John fishes for words again. “Ah, the surgeon aboard one of the ships. A naturalist, in fact.”
Her look goes from curious to level. “I know the Goodsir family’s reputation, John. You needn’t explain the known. I was asking after the history of your acquaintance with the gentleman. Should I expect an invitation to dine or a demand for a duel?”
“A… A duel? No! No, oh Lord, no, Mary.” John shakes his head as Sarah returns with the little white card in her hands. “Mister Goodsir is a friend.”
He takes the card from Sarah and examines it—the plain Henry D.S. Goodsir printed neatly on the front, with no accolades or titles to have it be the sort of card to set atop the pile for visitors to direct their gawking. Upon turning it over, the back of the card is netted with Goodsir’s handwriting, done with clear haste.
In Edinburgh for two weeks – lodging at 55 George Sq–
Please write or appear at leisure – hope you are well
“Hardly an invitation to duel,” Mary says from over his shoulder. She almost sounds disappointed.
John ignores her to direct his attention to Sarah. “Do I have any other correspondence waiting?” he asks.
For a moment, Sarah looks nervous, her jaw clenching and unclenching before she inclines her head politely. “Well, yes. Mister Irving instructed it to be withheld until you were well enough to sort through it.”
This John knows, although he hardly anticipated twenty-three calling cards to follow him to an address that he is certain he did not publicise. He sighs and tucks Goodsir’s card into his coat pocket. “I think I deem my own health suitable for that.”
“There are…” Sarah trails off, suddenly minding her hands with great interest. “Oh, quite a few cards, sir. And no lack of letters.”
“This card makes twenty-four, yes?”
“And the letters?”
Her eyes go from her hands to a fixed point on the ceiling, alarming John with the thought that she’s mentally counting. “Aside from the letters you instructed to receive from Commander Little, I believe there are twelve.”
“Twelve?” John exclaims at the same moment Mary dissolves into helpless giggles. “How can that be? Are they all from different correspondents?”
“I believe so, sir.”
Mary pats him on the shoulder as though he’s been given the most dreadful news. “There, there, my dear brother. It is merely the product of every wish for a letter banked up to form a wonderful fire in the hearth of your niche in society. You ought to be pleased!”
He gives his sister a weary look. “I will be up half the night,” he says.
“Nonsense! You needn’t respond all at once. If you’d like, I can read through a few and summarise them so you will not be at the mercurial mercy of terrible handwriting.”
“You will be a constant visitor in my business.”
“As if I was ever anything but!” she declares. She turns enough to address Sarah. “Sarah, darling, you can certainly fetch the letters. I intended to use my brother as the fuse to ignite the powder keg of Edinburgh society for all he’s worth.”
Sarah gives a quick curtsey and just barely hides her smile before walking off toward the office. John, however, stares at Sarah’s former point of focus on the ceiling as to ask the Almighty to intercede.
“Mary, no,” is all he says.
“What in heaven’s name do you mean, no? You cannot remain in your room to wile away the day as you have. That’s the sort of thing that makes a man ill!”
Again, it’s a matter of Mary’s subtleties of moods. On the surface, she seems to be brimming with excitement at the thought of turning her brother about the city’s infinitesimal parlours and ballrooms; John cannot fault her for that, having been all but bricked into her home since her daughter’s birth. However, he can also feel that concern pushing against him. He’s been just as bricked in, but by his own design. Mary would never say so aloud—she doesn’t need to.
“We’ll only start with a few,” she interjects, as neat as a knife into his thoughts. “Those you deem important, of course. I doubt your Commander Little is the only man of the Expedition to contact you. I’ve even read in the papers that the Admiralty is hosting some great party in London to celebrate the return. Undoubtedly, they’ve tried to contact you.”
The thought chills him in a way that only the Arctic can compete with. “Perhaps they’ll send a man,” he remarks as Mary begins to steer him toward the parlour.
“That would be embarrassing,” she retorts pleasantly.
As they sit near the fireplace, Sarah returns with—alarmingly—a small wooden case that she sets on the little marble table between their chairs. Then, she excuses herself to fetch them tea, and that is apparently the silent signal that sets Mary to begin parsing through the papers.
Indeed, there is a veritable stack of calling cards; some from within John’s circle of friends and acquaintances, and some from individuals that he’s certain he’s never met in his life. One calling card, from a Miss Catherine Shaw of Drummond Place, is even perfumed. John hands it to his sister to affirm the fact.
“Oh, heavens,” Mary remarks, holding the card between her thumb and forefinger in investigation. “That is rose oil if I’ve ever smelled it.”
Her eyebrows raise, and she says nothing.
For the next half an hour, the two of them work through cards and letters with the exactitude of accountants working through a particularly ill-kept book. Twice, Sarah returns to refresh their cups and bring them a plate of biscuits.
“As I suspected,” Mary suddenly says, teacup in one hand and a folded letter in another. The article is held up like it’s something meant to offend. “Letter from the Admiralty! It is an absolute wonder that Father didn’t force you to read it.”
“Because he’s a wonderful and merciful person, unlike you,” John parries back.
“Straight to mine heart with the sword of your words!” Mary mock-laments, clutching the letter to her chest like a handkerchief meant to stymie the effluence of emotions, or perhaps blood. Then, she grins and forces the paper into his hand. “For later, if your constitution is too delicate to withstand.”
“Pray that it isn’t,” John replies, tucking the letter under the grouping of calling cards that he’s deemed worth reviewing again.
“And what of a letter from one Mister—” She pauses, feigning an inquisitive squint at another folded envelope. All John can see of it is a press of dark red wax at its back. “Oh, pardon. A Captain Francis R.M. Crozier? Is that a name worth repeating, or shall I dispose of this one as well?”
John snatches the letter out of her hand before she can start laughing.
The correspondence is only as lengthy as John can expect from Crozier, filling only half the sheet in his loping handwriting. All the same, it brings John some strange sense of comfort, like meeting an old friend indirectly.
2 Eliot Place, Blackheath
October 1st, 1849
My Dear John—
I feel it necessary to do the appropriate apologies for the length of silence in letters despite my promises otherwise but as with all I have spoken to time has been short and business has been plentiful. That said, I believe by now you have gotten word from an office of the Admiralty asking after your attendance to a gathering in our honour in November and I hope that I will not have to tarry in the mire without an understanding soul aside from Fitzjames and some of your fellows. I have noticed your departure to Edinburgh (I will not betray confidence in those who have informed) and I say John I understand very much the need to leave. Should you reject the invitation I will be among the first to defend the decision. You will always have friends in London who will welcome you with graciousness as I am sure you know.
I will follow up with a longer letter of all the wonders and delights of London life as per your pleasure at a later date when I am not subject to those said wonders and delights to the point that I ought to retch into the fireplace and ruin my own invitation. I will eagerly await any letter of your own and remain your friend—
Francis R.M. Crozier
John reads through the letter twice more before placing it with what he now believes is the invitation letter. Mary has since abandoned her efforts to focus all her attention onto him, her eyes bright and brimming with curiosity.
“I suppose I’ll be going to London next month,” John says. Then, he regards the small booklet of cards. “After a few visits, of course.”
She smiles. “Of course,” she repeats.
Red, white, white, white, black, red, red, black, grey—
“Lieutenant. Lieutenant. Lieutenant.”
One voice carrying on the wind shuddering around him, into his ears, into his mouth, down his throat, curling like a worm in the pit of his stomach—writhing, twisting, cinching tight until—
John sits up with a gasp, arm hooked tight around his middle as though to keep any viscera from spilling through his fingers. His stomach rolls like a ship in the tide, banking up high and falling low in the troughs of his breathing. Something tightens in his throat—fingers pressing against his oesophagus, higher and higher until it’s at the base of his tongue and—
He only just pulls the chamber pot out from under the bed before he’s emptying every speck of dinner into it in a set of great heaves. Trembling, he holds his hand over his mouth as sweat beads cold on his skin. Pain settles into a persistent ache in his gut, pulsing in time with his heart.
Lieutenant. Lieutenant. Lieutenant.
He retches again and barely hears the door open.
“John? Oh, John.”
Her hands are on his back, pressing firmly against his spine and following its column up and down, up and down. He only sees the bottom of her nightgown when he opens his eyes, her toes peeking out from under the lace hem. If he looks up, he’ll see her dark braid over one shoulder, tied off with a dark blue ribbon.
She sits beside him, rubbing his back, humming quietly as he waits for the spell to pass. She’s humming a lullaby—something old and as ancient as the hills, he thinks. The words escape him, lost in the soft lilting notes and the wind still hissing in his ears. Still, he leans toward her, feeling one arm curl around his shoulders. She pauses for just a moment, gently combing hair off his sweat-soaked forehead.
“Sleep,” she says. Her voice is soft as dove feathers, just as he remembers.
He lays back down, eyes closed, even though he desperately wants to open them. All the while, she hums and sings.
He wants to look, wants to see her again after all these long years, wants to ask what happened. You died, he wants to say. I saw you. I saw you.
His mother leaves with her lullaby following whisper-quiet into the hallway. The door closes behind her.
John dreams of nothing at all.
-Edward Little was awarded Commandership in 1846 while he was away on the Franklin Expedition. It was well-known enough that it's inscribed on the Expedition memorial in Greenwich, and is mentioned in his father's obituary.
-It's hard to find exactly where Mary Scott-Moncrieff was living in 1848, but she seemed to have bounced between her husband's parish and Edinburgh. I also know it's not exactly proper for a brand-new mom to be out in society, but, uh, AU where that's okay?
-I tried my hand at writing in Crozier's letter-writing style (again) and let me tell you, it's not as easy as I thought. I think he was allergic to commas?
(Also kudos for recognizing his address. ;D)
-The social Season differed quite a bit between London and Edinburgh. Edinburgh's kicked off at the end of August right when London's was ending. Hurray!
-Irving's mother, Agnes, died when he was eight years old. Not that it's going to be used in the plot or anything. :D