To my Dearest Aunt (and Esteemed Cousin)
I fear I am obliged to (metaphorically, and, I hope,temporarily) throw myself at your feet. The situation is dire, Auntie, but I will confide all when I see you - at present, it is best not to indulge my woes. May I flatter myself that you will agree to having me stay, in spite of the inconveniences I know I must pose.
Do not trouble yourself with a reply - I am already hastening your way.
Forever yours, Auntie - with ardentapologies for my indelicacy and presumption,
Our story begins as something passed over a windowsill, across which waltzed fragments of sunlight into a quaint drawing room. The recipient saw fit to open the letter - upon which, she noticed, was inscribed no return address save for 'Edgar' - before the man who had delivered it. Why snub his curiosity? So commenced a monologue on the merits of her inestimable nephew, in whose quirky hand was the letter written.
Dickson - for that was his name - felt distinctly uncomfortable. He was unacquainted even with the works of Austen, and eyed his steed nervously from where he stood at the window, his hand resting on the hot sill. Ah! to be a donkey, with no capacity for language, let alone literature. Surely no one could be worse-equipped than he for humouring this lady, whose husband's sister's fostered young son was a poet, no less!
Mrs Clemms enjoyed educating the masses, and, over the years, had made it her sacred personal mission to stitch up any void in the minds of her less enlightened neighbours. It emerged that Edgar was an accomplished young gentleman of five and twenty. A few of his 'pieces' had crept anonymously into the Boston journals - but these, according to Mrs Clemms, had been "mere scribblings" compared with the works of which he was now capable. He was tragic, like all the best poets, but bore his troubles with a serenity and sense of self-containedness which recommended him more to Mrs Clemms than any amount of fine prose.
Deviation was an old friend of this lady, and she embarked at length upon a description of her nephew's noble looks and demeanor. His handsome, melanoid eyes; the curvature of his slim nose. Here, Dickson managed to turn a laugh into a quaking cough. Mrs Clemms permitted him to clear his throat before continuing:
"And now, he writes, he is to come south! Such pleasant news, as we are so isolated here." She paused and exalted wordlessly for a moment, then opted to reinforce the original message: "He is, as I say, quite well known in Boston -"
In spite of his anonymity? Dickson marvelled silently.
"- And to think he will be bringing his talents to Virginia - Ginny!" At the last word, she turned her head, and the call echoed through the house behind her.
Dickson seized his opportunity. With a scarcely mumbled "Good day" and a nod to the lady's stiffened back, he was riding away. He had too little respect for propriety, and too high a regard for concision, to be long in the company of Mrs Clemms. The village of Hatting seemed to brighten with the knowledge that his home, wife and young son awaited him.
But as he leaves the story, so enters a young girl, at her mother's command. She stops in the doorway of the sunlit drawing room, her index finger holding open at a page the leather-bound copy of the New Testament clutched at her side.
She was decidedly, almost deliberately, plain. Her hair had been cut short, and different locks seemed to curl, hang, and stick out at the whim of misfortune. Her chin was too angular. Her gaze held nothing of the softness it intended, but rather an inquiry, a sort of sharp curiosity. Poor creature! Would her complexion have redeemed her; but it was pale enough to be termed sickly, and not flawless anyhow.
This was Ginny, and Mrs Clemms summoned her to the window.
"What news, my dear! Your cousin Edgar intends to pay us a visit! It will do us both much good, I'm sure..."
The mother pulled the window to; the daughter studied the letter in silence. It was the first news in a long time that had found them in Hatting, and Ginny had thought she might be glad, but she could not now make herself so. She could not help it - she felt an edge to the sentiment. Was it malice? No; irony. Who could "esteem" her?
"May he stay long?" were her first words.
"Certainly, as long as he pleases!" cried Mrs Clemms.
"Is he always that unhappy?"
Thiswas rebuked with a stern glance."Happiness is a private emotion, Virginia. And don't you ask any of that sort of thing in front of dear Edgar. It's not ours to meddle -"
"I was just wondering."
"Well, don't, dear."
Eleven years' attempt to comprehend her daughter had eroded at the lady's patience. Greatly vexed, she strode about the room, hither and thither, and yanked the curtains to, hiding the evening outside. Ginny stayed where she was, and lit a candle.
"Must he come? Must he stay?"
"How can you possibly object to this, Virginia? You were no more than six years oldwhen we last saw him. Naturally he must."
How could she object to it? How could she articulate the rumbling of deep distrust, of discomfort, that accompanied his name? Ginny could not fathom it herself. She only knew it to be illogical; according to her mother, many of her qualms were. She ought not to be superstitious; she ought not to be unreasonable. She tried to think reasonably of Edgar, of what she could remember, but something stirred - weakly - like a weed waving in the current on the bed of a river. How? She dug down, reached for it, heard the rush and swell of the water as it parted - to reveal - what?
It disappeared in her hand; and all she heard now was her mother's hollow footstep on the flagstones, as she took the candle and walked out, leaving Ginny in the darkness.
The next heard of Boston's young and talented wordsmith was his knock upon the front door. Mrs Clemms hastened to it, though the maid and Ginny bothhad been closer at hand; it swung open to reveal a tall, almost elegant young man.
He smiled; it seemed to give shade, rather than light, to his pale countenance. Strands of black hair tickled the hollows of his cheeks, and fell across his forehead, to graze thick brows that seemed to swoop, as eagles, low above his eyes. The light beginnings of a beard spread, from dark downy sideburns, across his cheeks and chin. He should, Ginny thought, have looked desperate - unshaven, tousled, tramplike! Yet he did not - and perhaps it was his eyes, and perhaps it was the letter, or her imagination. He lookedheroic - dauntless- handsome. He was - she searched for the word - statuesque. Yes, statuesque.
She reached to shake his hand, then retreated into a curtsey.
The necessity for salutations, embraces and inquiries after their Boston relations postponed meaningful conversation for at least fifteen minutes. Edgar, Ginny noticed, bore Mrs Clemms' trifling niceties with patience, and undertook to overpower them with finer compliments of his own. How well the garden looked in all the splendour of June! How becoming the ivy that roamed freely 'cross the cottage walls! How tall - he did not say gangly - Ginny had become!
It was her first cue to speak.
"Thank you, cousin. May I say how remarkably well you look, too."
So that was that. Their first exchange in five years, utterly devoid of insight, wit or meaning. For thebriefest of times their gazes collided - there was a calm amusement in his and in awkwardness in hers - and she resumed her examination of the floorboards.
Mrs Clemms nodded approvingly. Introductions made, now Ginny was to be dismissed, and Clara, the maid, instructed to bring tea and refreshments for Mr Poe. The aforementioned gentleman, it may be noted, took a seat without awaiting invitation, though his doting aunt attributed this to fatigue from the journey.
Here, Dickson may be permitted a brief re-entry, as he lumbers through the hallway with two bulky cases of Edgar's. He inwardly congratulates himself on having avoided Mrs Clemms, and waves to Ginny, who is perched on the stairwell, watching him.
"Evening, Miss Virginia..."
Ginny was left on the stairwell with Edgar's black cases for company. As her luck would have it, the proximity of the back stairwell to the drawing room, at whose oak table sat Mrs Clemms and Edgar, placed her fully within earshot of their dialogue. (What Ginny heard was no dark secret, but neither was it the sort of information with which any prudent mother would furnish a girl of eleven.)
"So, how long?" was heard first.
"For as long as you need, dear."
"That may be longer than you anticipate."
This information, given so gravely, was recieved with pleasure. To have this vibrant young man visit, and immediately following his arrival, seek to extend his stay, perhaps indefinitely! But Mrs Clemms, who thought herself no fool, was not prepared to believe that Edgar really sought country life, or the society of two women, merely as a refuge from the turbulence of Boston. No; there must be a more immediate reason. And Edgar, ever obliging, volunteered the truth independent of his aunt's prompt.
"I couldn't stay - that is, my father made me leave." Cousin Edgar's voice now held something of anger - a hidden edge had sharpened. "I remained six days in the hope that he would reconsider - and in all of that time he would not bestow a word upon me." He sighed, dramatically. "He did not say goodbye."
"Oh, Edgar! How dreadful for you!"
Ginny searched herself for a word to identify her feelings - an amalgamation, perhaps, of awe, jealousy, pity? Her own recollections of Daddy predating the faded memories of Edgar from five years back, her envy of anyone who still had a father in their lives was fierce. But for one's father to be so cruel? Better, surely, to be alone by brutal circumstance, than to be outcast in spite.
Mrs Clemms was incapable of articulating her sympathy plainly. A thousand regrets opened up and poured out - though her eyes stung with none of the tender tears of her daughter's. She endeavoured to offer practical solutions: he should surely take Ginny's chambers; she would never object. He should be featured (through her dubious influence) in local journals! He should - he could -
"I am honoured," Edgar said quietly, "and most grateful. But I could not possibly presume to trespass so far upon your hospitality. All your cottage is beautiful, Auntie - and I should imagine your spare chambers are fit for personnages far higher than semi-qualified poets. Oh yes," he continued wryly, for he had mis read her protestations, "I have no longer the funds for university.
Less of a twinge did Ginny feel at this fresh revelation. Her mother's drones of consolation burst in on her thoughts. "Oh Edgar, what a shame! Such a waste of talent. No, don't be modest; I shall mail your father immediately..."
The eruption of her cousin's deep, bitter laugh made Ginny quiver. "I wish you success, Auntie. But my father despairs of my every action... It was my ambition - my wish to continue writing - that led to our final - dispute..."
A full hour after the arrival of Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Clemms stole up the stairway. No creaking floorboard had betrayed her presence, and, below her, Mother discussed politics with Cousin Edgar, unawares. Ginny observed from her window as the sun dropped below the grain fields, and invisible hands threw the moon into the sky. O God! she thought, if not social grace, give me tolerance; if not ease, grant me immunity! She stayed a while, until the window had frosted with her breath; then, sleep deemed the most effective counter to her sore eyes, she fell, fully dressed, into oblivion.