Book Excerpt



            This morning we ate our breakfast as usual, the three of us: Father, Polly, and myself. Mrs. Morris arrived at her accustomed time with the provisions she had acquired at the market: a limp chicken, some yellowish cabbage, a few dented apples. At eight, as always, Father left for the Dispensary, eager to tend to whatever victims of disease the night might have washed up. And Polly and I settled in the library with a slate and some chalk, for the realization has struck me that next month she will be turning six, and I am determined that she’ll learn her letters without further ado. All in all, it was an unremarkable morning, offering no clue of what the afternoon would bring.

Alas, my efforts at instilling some learning in Polly soon foundered. After a mere ten minutes, she began to whine and pout and rub her eyes, complaining of fatigue, and at last she threw the slate upon the floor. Had this same scene not transpired a dozen times or more in the last month, I might have relented; I might have put her on my knee and pressed my cheek to hers and called her my own little Moggie, as she perhaps expected. But, I reminded myself, the girl must learn, it was time: no child of mine, male or female, will make her way in the world unlettered and untutored. I suppose at that moment I may have thought of that lout her father, wherever he may be, so feckless and lacking in ambition. And so I told her that if it was only amusement she sought in life, she would suffer for it; and that a life of idleness would surely lead to misery and wickedness.

It was no more than what my own father had said to me, or more often to my brother, many times in my childhood, but it had an effect on Polly all out of proportion to what I’d intended. She stared at me, her eyes wide, and then her features drew themselves together, giving her the aspect of a small pink prune. A moment later she burst into a loud sob and ran from the room. I had an impulse to follow the child and tell her I hadn’t intended to cause her such distress. But no, I told myself, you must be firm. Give her time to consider her mistake, and she will return, chastened and ready to learn.

And so instead I picked up the latest submissions that Mr. Cork had sent for me to read and evaluate for publication in the Companion, and within a few minutes I was sufficiently absorbed in attempting to peruse them that I had entirely forgotten Polly’s lessons. The first offering on the pile was a long poem, written in heroic couplets, concerning some romance that had gone awry. The initial stanzas appeared to have some merit, but the author soon proved himself neither a Pope nor a Dryden, and certainly no Johnson. The heroic couplet, I considered, is a form to be closely guarded; when it falls into the wrong hands it is tiresome in the extreme. Perhaps one should be required to obtain a license before attempting to employ it. “No!” I wrote on the first page.

Next was a tale, no doubt meant to be amusing, of a bachelor pursued by three young coquettes, sent by a correspondent styling himself “Cloanthus.” But the subject was such a tired one, and the writing generally so puerile, that I soon cast it aside. I had just begun the third, an essay on the decline of the Holy Roman Empire that appeared more promising, when a messenger arrived with a missive from none other than Mr. Cork himself.

I sighed as I broke the seal, expecting some peremptory chastisement for not having returned the submissions to him yet—for I have become accustomed to such messages. Either he is a much faster reader than I, or he does not invest the care that I do in reading what arrives in our letter-box—or perhaps, as I suspect, it has been so long since he himself has read a submission (though he currently bears the title of Editor) that he no longer has any understanding of how much time the task requires. But as I unfolded the paper and read the words he had scrawled there—once, then twice, and then a third time to ensure that I had comprehended them rightly—I felt my breath catch and my heart beat faster. Yes, yes, I heard myself whisper aloud; yes, yes, I will!