12 Winters Blog

Chapter One of An Untimely Frost

Posted in January 2014 by Ted Morrissey on January 28, 2014

Below is the first chapter of my new novel An Untimely Frost, published by Twelve Winters Press earlier this month. The story was inspired by Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Listen to an interview by WUIS’s Rachel Otwell.

from An Untimely Frost copyright © 2014 Ted Morrissey. All rights reserved.

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

Chapter One

The London streets confounded me. I had the address of her residence, obtained via my London publisher—how difficult could it be to find, 261½ Wicker’s Lane? How difficult indeed! The cut of my suit was like a giant flame for the moth-like streetpeople, hawking their wares directly in my face, so that I smelled their rotting teeth and breakfasts of spoiled turnips and onions. And solicitous women . . . at ten in the morning? Even Old New Yorkers waited until after a proper luncheon for such engagements, I would think.

In spite of the distractions I found the inauspicious house on Wicker’s Lane. I stood across from it and gazed somewhat in awe: here was the residence of Margaret T. Haeley, authoress of so many of my fretful nights. For months after reading Dunkelraum, before I could settle into sleep, I would check under my bed and in the wardrobe for Mrs. Haeley’s monster—ridiculous, I knew even then, for a giant to be lurking in such small places. But if it were possible at all for her monster to exist, my still childish mind must have reasoned, then it was equally possible for him to break the physical laws of space.

My wonder at Mrs. Haeley’s monster contributed in no mean part to my wanting to take up the pen myself. (Which reminded me, I still needed to finish the proof-sheets for Andersen’s Romance; Murry—that was Mr. A. B. C. Murry of Claxton House—was, I imagined, growing impatient as he wanted to capitalize on the renewed interest in America in Sunnydale, my second book and first full-length novel; there was a stage play in the works, rumored to be starring none other than Mr. Junius Booth. Murry had had the proof-sheets delivered to the hotel and the stack was waiting in my room upon my arrival. No rest for the weary, they say.)

The thought of the house’s occupant quickened my pulse but the narrow-shouldered structure itself was remarkably unremarkable: brown-stained boards (in need of fresh stain) which led one’s eye to black-shuttered windows that were too small for the house’s two and a half storeys; the windows gave the impression the old house was squinting. I recalled the boyhood trick of squinting at an object until the act of only partial seeing—of shutting out more and more light—transformed the object into something altogether of another world. I was tempted to narrow my eyes at the old structure. . . .

Church-bells’ pealing in the neighborhood broke my reverie. I was readying myself to cross the lane and call on Mrs. Haeley when I noticed a slightly built black fellow approach the house with a leather tote of wood—wood, yes, I realized, but not split logs or kindling as such—rather broken pieces of furniture: a severed table leg protruded conspicuously from the tote, which the fellow balanced quite easily on his narrow shoulder. He bypassed Mrs. Haeley’s front steps and instead went to an alternate door to the side, below street level, that I had not observed at all. A moment to fiddle with the lock and the black fellow with his sticks of furniture disappeared from view.

I waited for a dray to pass; the malnourished beast pulling it deposited a fresh dollop of manure in the lane. Then, dodging the droppings, I went to Mrs. Haeley’s front door. There was a bell-key positioned beneath a pane of stained glass, glass which was too smudged and greasy for me to make out its figures. I turned the key and heard the rattling chime within. I imagined its echoing in the empty foyer of a haunted and abandoned house. . . . Thinking of Mrs. Haeley’s monster had worked its old spell on my fancy.

I waited, listening to the noises of the streetpeople behind me. I did not want to appear rude but I turned the bell-key again. After all, I knew someone was inside. Another long period elapsed. I took my card from my vest pocket (beforehand I had added the name of my hotel, The Saint Georges) and I was intending to slip the card through the postman’s slot when I heard footsteps inside, then the bolt . . . bolts (four!) were moved aside, and the door slowly and creakily receded but only about a hand’s length. “Yes?” came a man’s voice, English but not a Londoner it seemed. It was gloomy inside Mrs. Haeley’s house but with the little daylight leaking into the narrow space I realized the gatekeeper (I thought of Macbeth’s jocular one) was the slightly built black fellow.

“Hello there; I’ve come to pay my regards to Mrs. Haeley—a mutual friend recommends me.” Friend was a bit strong as I wasn’t certain that any true ones existed in the book business but I hoped the innocent embellishment would gain me admittance.

“Mrs. Haeley is not receiving callers today, sir. Thank you . . .” and he began to close the door.

“Wait—please—I’ve come such a long way—” It was true, and my feet were starting to pain me again. “Will you at least present her my card?” I held it in the narrow opening and felt the foyer’s draft on my fingers. The fellow’s hand came up, perhaps reluctantly, to take it. The realization struck me that there was no proper servant in Mrs. Haeley’s house, just this taciturn handyman or whatever he was, who completed the task and shut the door without further word. The bolts were slid back into place.

I stood a moment at Mrs. Haeley’s door, nonplussed at being turned away so unceremoniously; then I began my descent of the five steps but halted when I heard the bolts again. The door opened more fully this time and the black fellow stood in its frame. “Jefferson Wheelwright—author of Sunnydale and the Old New Yorker stories?”

I had turned and was looking up from the second step. “That’s correct, my good fellow—at your service.” I put a finger to my hat brim (a high, round-crown affair I was informed was the epitome of London vogue, though I had not seen a one since stepping from the Chaos, an old packet whose crew made certain she was aptly named).

“Mrs. Haeley is not taking callers but she would not wish me to turn away a man of letters without some refreshment. Won’t you step indoors, sir?”

“Most kind; thank you.” I was still disappointed at not meeting Mrs. Haeley, but I was feeling most fagged and some tea and a taste of biscuit sounded quite glorious. I went in and removed my allegedly fashionable hat (it was chocolate brown velveteen made from the same bolt as my coat lapels, vest and cuffs—I was sparing no expense for my tour of England and the Continent). When Mrs. Haeley’s man closed the door the foyer was plunged into a profound gloom for which my eyes were ill prepared.

“This way, Mr. Wheelwright.”

“Your name, sir?”

“Mrs. Haeley has always called me ‘Thursday.’”

“Like Crusoe’s Friday.”

“Yes—but one better, she says.” The pride in Thursday’s voice was evident. From the foyer we went into a long narrow hall. The irregularity of the walls made me think they were in sad disrepair; then my adjusting eyes discovered the appearance of irregularity was due to the fact the walls were lined with books, stacks and stacks of books, each reaching close to the fourteen-foot ceiling. Actually it was my nose that helped my eyes to interpret clearly: the wonderful smell of old books permeated Mrs. Haeley’s house. There were hundreds of books just in the hall—perhaps thousands!

Thursday paused for a moment and deftly removed a book from the middle of a stack, about eye height, and handed it to me before turning a corner into a room I soon discovered was the parlor. Daylight filtered in through slightly ajar shutters and sheer curtains—enough light to allow me to read the spine of the book: Sketches of the Old New Yorkers. The volume, I was happy to see, was well thumbed.

Thursday took my hat. “It’s very nice—I’ve not seen one quite like it.”

“So I’m beginning to suspect.”

He placed the hat on a coat rack in the corner from which a long woolen scarf and a dark jacket already hung. The room was of good proportions with several couches and armchairs and low seats of the Ottoman style. A large oval table occupied the more or less center of the room. It all gave the impression, however, that though it was a place to welcome guests, none had been welcomed there for some time.

Thursday invited me to sit while he fetched “a nuncheon of tea and crackers.” I took a couch opposite one of the room’s three windows. I smelled the dust that was unsettled by my sitting. There were no pictures on the walls, though there were darkened rectangular spaces where ones had been hanging for years. The motif of the book continued as there were stacks here and there in the parlor, none as prodigious, though, as those that stood in the hall.

My eyes had adapted totally and I perused the volume of Sketches Thursday had handed me. I opened the cover and there was the India-ink portrait of me rendered by young Melissa Blackwood, my neighbor’s daughter during my Albany days (the Blackwoods had moved to Brussels and I planned to visit them on my tour). Little Miss had done a remarkable job on the portrait for such a youthful artist but the likeness was not perfect. Her affection for her “Uncle Jeff” had caused her to widen the space between my eyes and to thin my lips and to tuck in my ears (the ears which had acquired for me the grammar-school nickname of “Chimp”). I realized that the inclusion of my portrait rendered by such a juvenile hand was apropos in so much as the sketches themselves were unpracticed in their way, too—though at the time I considered them the masterpieces of the age. Only two years elapsed between Sketches and Sunnydale, yet they were worlds apart in craft. I trusted that my new work demonstrated a similar advancement in my technique, but I wasn’t so certain: I’d often felt in something of an artistic rut.

The musing reminded me of one of my chief reasons for calling upon Mrs. Haeley. Like the rest of the literary world, I wondered if the authoress was at work on something new. Other than the posthumous volume of her husband’s verse that she had edited and for which had written a touching introduction, nothing had come from her pen, save, I supposed, for letters to family and friends (I held out hope of becoming one of the latter).

Thursday returned with a silver tray and pot, both slightly tarnished, two delicate-looking cups, and a plate of crackers. I wondered then if Mrs. Haeley would be receiving me after all. But Thursday, after pouring my tea and adding a spot of cream at my request, fixed himself a cup and sat in a chair adjacent to my couch. I was not used to such behavior from a domestic, and it occurred to me that maybe Thursday was more than that to Mrs. Haeley. When did Haeley drown? It’d been more than ten years. Sipping at my tea, I tried to examine Thursday’s features more acutely in the parlor’s poor light: his nose was somewhat broad and his lips thick, but his hair, which was brushed straight back, was more Italian in appearance than African; so he seemed of mixed parentage.

“The tea is very good. Thank you for it.” I took a cracker from the plate. It proved stale but was tolerable (and welcome) with the tea. “When might Mrs. Haeley be receiving?”

Thursday lowered the cup from his lips. “It is difficult to say. She does not see many visitors so there is no regularity to it.”

I would imagine journalists were a constant bother to the household. She had been, after all, notorious in her youth, before Haeley’s yachting accident. I recalled the headline in the Post: Celebrated English Poet Dead! / Stephen Hæley’s Yacht Capsizes During Storm. A romantic teenager at the time, I immediately fantasized courting and wooing Haeley’s young widow, of taking his place at her side, a new King with the Queen of English literati. I had not thought of all that for years but perhaps the notion lay on the underside of my mind when I made my plans for the tour.

We sat in silence for a time with our tea and crackers. I was trying to think of something to say when there was a creaking overhead as if someone were walking about upstairs. I looked to Thursday, perhaps to confirm it was the lady herself.

“Old houses and their rheumatic joints.” Thursday smiled, his teeth as white as alabaster in the gloomy parlor.

“Indeed.” Then I had the crazy thought that Mrs. Haeley was not there at all . . . that Thursday was an invader of her home, had murdered the famous (infamous?) authoress and buried her in the yard. There were instances of actresses and opera dancers having overzealous supporters who would not leave them be and who sometimes broke into their rooms—even a case or two wherein the worshipper did harm to their chosen idol because of their twisted devotion. To my knowledge, authoresses did not generate such a following (nor authors for that matter), but there is always a first case. “How is Mrs. Haeley?”

“Oh Mrs. Haeley is fine. I make certain she gets her meals and her rest.” There was more of that pride in Thursday’s voice, though it sounded as if he were referring to a prized equine and not the lady of the house. On the one hand, I had no reason to doubt Thursday’s assertion but on the other my first impression of Mrs. Haeley’s house was not of its being a place of sound health. It seemed like a home from her fiction, a birthplace for a monster. Perhaps her upstairs apartment was all light and cheerfulness, a place she could revel in the sort of vitality Thursday implied. After all, Mrs. Haeley was still a young woman, only some eight years my senior. It was just that she achieved literary fame at such a young age, her novel the buzz of New York City, London, Paris, Brussels, all coinciding with her twentieth birthday. Quite remarkable really.

I finished my tea and crackers, feeling somewhat refreshed, which was good as I would likely have to hike up to Fullham Road on aching feet to find a cab. I had been dropped there, wishing to walk the remaining blocks, to take in the sights and sounds of the OldCity. My head was filled with London stories—of the strolling gentlemen and ladies, of the fancy carriages, of the gay chimneysweeps. This idealized tableau was not the London I found. Perhaps it was somewhere else, in another district. I wondered at the impression of Old New York my book created and whether visitors were taken aback by the genuine thing. I was no doubt giving myself and my pen too much credit.

“Well,” I said, placing my cup upon the tray, “thank you, Thursday, for the refreshment; it worked wonderfully and I feel quite able to return to the hotel.”

“I’m sorry, sir, you did not see Mrs. Haeley, but I will tell her of your visit and present your card.” We both had risen and Thursday was crossing the room to retrieve my hat.

I appreciated Thursday’s politeness but it wasn’t the same thing as insuring me a future audience with Mrs. Haeley.

He handed me my hat. “One thing more, sir, if you would.” He went to a small writing desk in the corner of the parlor and returned with a pen and ink-bottle. I understood, and sat on the edge of the couch to autograph the volume of Sketches. It took me a moment to decide what to write but after turning to the cover page I inscribed: “To Mrs. Haeley and her ‘inmates,’ Best Regards, J. Wheelwright.” The “inmates” remark, of course, was meant as an allusion to her novel, where the childhood Hans mistakes the word intimates for inmates, and it proves ominous foreshadowing. I wondered though if my cleverness—my wanting to illustrate my level of familiarity with Mrs. Haeley’s work—would be grasped . . . and appreciated. It was done now. I used the ink-bottle to hold open the front cover and first pages until my inscription would dry, and I lay the pen besides.

A moment later I was on the stoop listening to Thursday quadruple bolt the door. And the sounds and smells of Wicker’s Lane were instantly upon me. I began making my way—sore feet and all—toward the hotel, resolving to hail the first cab I saw. I felt the old melancholia beginning to stir. I hadn’t a clue what a visit to Mrs. Haeley’s home would yield, but my experience was a disappointment of the first order.

The novel is available from Amazon (print and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (print and Nook), Espresso Book Machine, and a host of global booksellers. See the Twelve Winters Press Fiction Titles page for a complete list.

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