A diary of mysterious difficulties
“Then it wasn’t Emily,” I went on again, reviewing the same facts over and over in my mind.
I could feel the pressure of it all falling on my neck, my back, my ribs. For the moment it was too much, and I thought about crying out. This association with our brother Francis, little by little, was crushing for me, when for her it meant little.
For Emily, days in the sunshine, not a worry in the world.
Agnes was the only thing that saved me. Dear Agnes. What should I do without you? You possess the Divine Nature. You might have knocked me down with your straightforward analysis, but it worked. You muffled Francis in a towel and shut him up there, which I needed in order to see clearly. In conversations, Agnes said Emily was plainly so-and-so, with such-and-such qualifications, and she enabled me to put it all in a box. Maybe I would sleep at night. I’d like to sleep like Emily, like a baby.
I have no hesitation in saying that Francis was a good man. Yes, I’m biased, as he’s our brother, but nonetheless. Some time ago, when it all happened, he was fortifying the two sides of the ladder from which some men mounted the roof. Who knows what really happened. Those men were trouble, and had been spreading rumors about how “close” our family seemed to outsiders. Still, what did happen at Edinburgh and Yarmouth will remain a mystery, if I can help it.
That night, I stayed to dine at a decent alehouse, some miles from the scene. I wanted to imagine that I could see him wandering, our Francis. I thought if he would just inch out of hiding, I could convince him to take the right course.
Of course Emily complicated matters. She was standing in the middle. She believed a life of solitary existence was in store for him. I would not have left him, and thought that he could not spare the little he had.
Agnes was with me. She made sure our cottages were well appointed, and that I wouldn’t get in my own way. She pointed me in the right direction. She said to me,
“He’s going out with the tide,” and I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, believe her. Behind her woman’s voice, there was something ephemeral that I could not put my finger on.
I was not long in recollecting Mrs. Micawbers’s views on my split up the week before. How could this all happen so quickly, one thing on top of the other? I wondered if some of her strange numerology could help me through this family drama.
Some time ago, I was determined to change Emily. Francis thought this was mad; he told me that there was nothing else we could do; there was no process that could be undertaken. To Emily, I was always the visitor with a proud, intolerant air. She couldn’t see that she had begun this cycle, and no matter how accustomed she became to this relationship, she herself looked down upon me, and as she spiraled into increasing difficulties, Francis too.
Francis was always a gentleman, and while Emily continued to debase herself, he remained in her corner, defending her against our betters in Yarmouth. And we had such a lot of fiction embedded in our lives, how could we hope to fight it all off?
At this moment, as Agnes had said, the future was only half written. When, in thinking back after an interval of rest, I now realize that while I infinitely preferred to humor Emily, and tried to be grave with Francis, maybe I was to blame.
In pondering what would become of our future, I wondered what we could preserve for ourselves from these ashes. Relationships burned to a crisp. Was there a chance to start over now that it seemed no one would assist us? I was so attracted to Francis’s devoted life, and I went on, with that hushed concentration of someone seeking what is lost.
It was all done, and I’m not sure what Agnes and I hoped to achieve. Among Francis’s things there was a yellowed, old cartridge paper pad upon which he had scratched my favorite recipe.
“Do you remember when he did this?” Emily had the gall to ask. As if she was even there.
This is how my rage would stir and eventually boil over.
I proceeded to simmer.
I am still grateful that Agnes was there, the most wonderful woman in the world. She answered Emily for me, and later asked me why Emily brought out the worst in me?
“What else does she ever do?”
All this reminiscing made me think of the night Francis first brought Davy Pegotty home. We were holding a meeting, and Francis suggested I take attendance: Traddles, Mr. Omer, and the simple boys…the Captain, the only one missing since Edinburgh. We remembered…
Francis was on the top set, talking to the small group assembled, convincing them that until things were as they formerly were, we could not rest. He was at his rousing best. After passing through the room to see who was with us that night and recording it on that old cartridge pad, handing it back to Francis, I hurried back to answer the ringing the bell. It was him.
Francis said that Davy had told him, “Dora is so true, she is so beautiful, she is so good…” and I thought he was joking, of course.
The moment I opened that door I wondered how this earthquake had taken place so unexpectedly. “It was the times, Dora, my child,” Mrs. Micawbers reminded me. I couldn’t love him more. Instantly. You have no idea what kinds of ideas these feelings nurse within…
He trudged in after me, avoiding the moving mass of shawls and pillows that was my aunt, standing in the foyer. I said,
“Davy, I beg, without offence to you, to limit your reply to me as I’m not sure…,” the thought wandered off. He took the opportunity to whisper in my ear that it was so good of me not to let him go on. Francis was talking of milking cows.
Emily came in, clueless as ever. “My younger children are instructed to observe…” she was droning on, paying no attention to Francis’s exhortations, taping him on the shoulder with her shut-up fan, “your thoughtfulness.”
It was his thoughtfulness, Davy’s that is, that now had me obsessed. Monday. My sweet D.
I am still much depressed. Headache. How could this all be over? I called to see whether Agnes had some good influence over him, although still thinking it futile after all that came before that there was any chance at reconciliation.
I shouldn’t even try.
After all, in Yarmouth, even on this humid shore, so many people know me and think kindly of me. When things started to fall apart, I began to believe that Davy forced his confidence upon me, expressly to make me miserable. I saw him looking as villainous as ever, and told him I did not approve of it.
“I don’t mind acknowledging to you that I’ve opened the door,” I admitted, “I will not only follow my wonderful brother’s revolutionary ideas, but also have fallen, Davy, for all your charm, your…”
Dear Agnes, with amiable concern for me, and the earnestness of all the sympathy my aunt could muster. My aunt was walking up and down the room when I returned from the scene of the break up. Crimping.
But neither Agnes nor Mrs. Micawbers had eyes for him, they were thinking of Francis, who had also disappeared by then. Were we able to travel back in time, there he would be, my brother in this chair, as safe as it used to be. And maybe Davy coming by for dinner.
As to general reading, I had done plenty. Dear me, more than plenty. I was my brother’s first lieutenant. That night, the night I met Davy, we had assigned Agnes to the door. At dinner she maintained her watch, with her same unwinking eyes.
“I look back on my life, child,” said Mrs. Micawbers, “and I think of some I thought I was;” my aunt was in one of her moods.
My thoughts wandered to Davy’s proposal; the chivalrous moment it was. In the midst of a war.
“To think,” said Francis at the time, “that you should have been so nearly in the trenches without having been married.”
Earlier that day, Davy Peggotty had gotten down on one knee. He opened his heart, as I ran across the lawn to a garden-seat, under the lilac, memory runs as light as a feather, and tracks as true as a mail-coach.
I had said yes.
I woke this morning less cut up and nostalgic than the night before. We had to deal with a “client” in mourning. Getting dressed quickly in a hand-me-down Guernsey sweater, and the shaggiest suit of slops I could find. I pulled a cup of coffee from the pot, coaxing the steaming liquid down. Then the postman, amidst the usual circulars, delivered a letter dated at least a week before. Typical.
I had some difficulty in settling at this point. Mrs. Micawbers was lurking around, repeating her new mantra, “I will be pleasant and amiable, I will be pleasant and amiable, I will be pleasant and amiable…”
“This makes me feel invisible,” I thought to myself. But before I had a moment to wade into depression, Traddles arrived.
“We won’t be seeing joy in her bright eyes so soon,” he said in his brogue to Agnes as they crossed the threshold. I was still emerging from my self-centered meditation, and assumed he was talking about me and Davy.
“She was a dear old clever one, and we will pay dearly for her loss…,” Traddles went on, bringing me back to the moment, focused on the task at hand.
So here was that famous bundle I had heard so much about but had not seen for years. “She” had been its safe-keeper, and now that “she” was gone, we had to find it a new guardian. Traddles unrolled the bundle on the table.
Mrs. Micawbers turned her back, and going softly across the hall, gently opened a cabinet under the stair that I never knew existed. Traddles, was also surprised by my aunt’s ingenuity. The surprise on his face reminded me of the day Traddles came to deliver the precious bundle he had recovered for the cause to Francis. Long ago, he had been clever enough to recover the bundle from our enemies, and at Francis’s direction, had placed it in the hands of the original safe-keeper.
“It was never know’d by her that I’d took it. She may search but now we have it, and shan’t return it,” reported Traddles.
Francis congratulated him for this great effort with a draught of whiskey. Mrs. Micawbers was there, of course, and not yet satisfied that Traddles had done the job completely. She hammered questions at the man, who was wan and exhausted from his exertions.
Wearily, he replied, “Aye Madam, it is a true bill.”
Over and over again, backwards and forwards, she reviewed his testimony. She wanted to be sure that we could trust him. I’m now sure Francis put her up to it. My aunt could be so easily vexed if she didn’t feel she was getting a straight answer; she was the perfect heavy.
Mrs. Micawbers opened the hatch that was seamlessly fashioned into the triangle of space under the stairs. Inside, there was another invisible compartment, easily accessible, yet impossible to detect. She told us it was alarmed. Reassembling the bundle, Traddles humorously remarked that he found himself unable to set eyes on this cargo without experiencing a pang of desire. None of us said a word.
Suddenly I was glad Agnes was there to see all this. She has become the witness to these strange aspects of my existence. She reinforces my own reality, confirming that I haven’t imagined it at all. In this life, I am destined to this fine business. Working for Francis, whether he is in hiding or not. Carrying on. Agnes will now be my right hand. She is excellently well-read, writes plainly and clearly, and yet I wonder if she might not be prepared to know everything…thoughts for a more meditative moment.
I decided to repeat the original ritual instigated by Francis at Traddles’s recovery of the bundle. Despite the early hour, and the disturbing news of our safe-keeper (perhaps this meant they were gaining on us?) I drew out the whiskey and poured Traddles a double.
He appeared at the stipulated location a quarter of an hour early. Fortunately I had been there since 4:30pm. The pleasant sound of laughter was leaking out of the nearby pub; and not the laughter of attorneys or doctors. Laughter is a dead give-away. I was convinced this meeting would yield great progress, as dangerous as it seemed.
Back at the cottage we’d argued about the meeting. I stood my ground. Normally, I would have sent a surrogate. Agnes, or even Mrs. Micawbers but this time it meant too much.
“You did right, for rights sake,” said my aunt, and I kept thinking of this phrase as I stood waiting for him, trying to keep my hands from numbing in the damp cold. I briefly glimpsed
my own reflection in a passing van carrying large plates of glass. I only looked quickly, perhaps somewhat intimidated to see what I had become.
But the alternative was just as bleak; to throw up my hands in anger or frustration on what had become of our operation? Yes, I was also broken-hearted; I thought of Francis, so full of courage as to inspire a half-dozen stragglers to gaze up at the windows behind which they thought he was shut up.
It went deeper though, and I resented it.
This was my first sense of exposure to the mean suspicion of this obligation. It weighed upon my mind to an insupportable degree. And then there was Emily. What does she wish of it? Earlier that morning she arrived, hurried and frightened, in our cottage. I do not know how long she had been ill but as soon as she started to speak, I recognized the signs immediately:
“I am so distraught. I wished to speak to you. You don’t understand what it is we have. I am a ghost that calls to Francis from beside his open grave…”
She went on to say that she was having visions again, and had reason to believe that there was nothing on earth to be gained from remaining active for two months. None of it made sense.
Fortunately Agnes appeared. I had seen her frequently, and now she stepped in with Emily, subduing her and getting her, somehow, upstairs to bed. However loud the generally playful and half-sorrowful muffled words I heard from the second floor, I was glad Agnes could help. I was quite touched.
Then, on the street, I could swear the Captain came into view. A figment? I know he is gone, since that fateful night in Edinburgh. We have also lost Francis. I have to face up to this fact. In hiding, or in some deeper, darker place that I can’t bear visualize, or gone too. Another casualty of the cause.
I’m not certain my frame can support the pressure…but who am I? I am too wicked to write about myself. Should I look to the cause for the source of our misfortunes?
Just then my aunt walked by, at the appointed time, dressed as a homeless woman, picking through the nearby trash heap. Seeing my misty reverie, “Oh, take comfort in Traddles,” appealed Mrs. Micawbers’s eye, and I feelingly acquiesced. I took the hand she held out with a dignified, unbending air. Whether she believed in it all was undeniable. They all believed, as Francis had, and now I was to lead.
Now I had to talk to the man I had come to see.
He consistently felt it necessary to make the slightest allusion to the cessation of our connection. He hinted at it, hinted I had been disposing of my money for myself. Absurd. It was all for everyone. But their self-forgetfulness charmed me. Their pride in these absurdities made me consider them to be more competent than I otherwise would. The discussion of such questions was endless.
I thought, “Oh what will you feel when you see this writing, and know it comes from my heart.”
I felt like a child exposed to disease. I infect everything I touch. Nonetheless, I tried to convince myself of my value. If not for me, then for the others.
In taking possession of our present abode, in the locker or bin in which we hid Francis’s package, I made a pledge never to reveal where it was secreted. Everyone inside knew this. I would remain loyal always and this recognition caused a general admiration in the party.
Mrs. Micawbers took the opportunity of Traddles’ arrival to have a drink of whisky herself. Her face might have been a dead-wall on the occasion in question, from which Francis first went forth upon his errand of mercy. Hither we were still and comforted by the arrival of Traddles and his package. I felt my soul at rest for the first time in many months.
“Thank you,” said Francis, “I know the great risk in bringing…” And his voice trailed off.
“Not at all,” said Traddles, knocking back another glass. He placed it carefully on the stone windowsill as he looked out into the fog.
In spite of the rain, and the dangerous electricity of the moment, I was cheerful. Then Francis started reminiscing about the beginning, and how he lured me in:
“At first she wouldn’t come at all; and then she pleaded for five the chimney-piece, so she could enter the meetings. We all wanted her to begin the conversation, and she did, trying to keep time and notes simultaneously. I realized, to my disgrace and shame, little Dora would accomplish more than I have done or could do. I foresaw my absence, and wanted folks to stay on, hold the path, to let go of wondering where I was. Dora would be the only one who might convince them, but she would have to be carrier of poor news.”
Davy Peggotty had made a communication to me on the way to London , “Leave her pretty comfortable. She’s the faithfullest of creatures.”
I was expected to inspect the wildness of her art. I was sure that the blue water she used to wash her hair made it that peculiar shiny midnight color. I was going to see Agnes. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do.
When I arrived, she spoke gracefully and bowed her acknowledgements from the side-door, letting me into her humble abode. I glanced to the left, where a picture of a boy stood on a rickety, simple table. He was important. I wondered who he might be, but before I could finish my thought, the cabinet in which her mother had forced Agnes to hide opened, and Agnes, gliding out, without a vestige of color in her cheeks, rushed up to me and we embraced. Holding her was profound comfort. I still didn’t know what I would do.
I told Agnes that Mrs. Micawbers’s health and prosperity must be discussed. She was getting on in years, and Traddles could no longer pop in to ensure her comfort. They had proposed at our last meeting that we might allocate seventy pounds per year to this issue, and it was approved. But this was not why I was visiting.
Just then, the same face I had seen in the photo by the door appeared in the hallway. Agnes tried to pretend there was no one else at home. Just as quickly as I saw him, the face was gone from the doorway. I still know I saw something. He was as mute and senseless as a box, and at that moment I knew he belonged to Agnes. That she had kept him all these years. Francis’s son.
In seeing my recognition, Agnes gasped.
“But you are doing us a great service, dear Agnes,” I said, “What should I do without you. You are a star, a peach, a brilliant woman.” But I found I couldn’t go on. My journey to London had been long and I found that they had driven everything else out of me.
“Not so Dora,” said Agnes, “All I have done is make him what he was. Who is supposed to be. I must do this, and he does not know who he is.”
I have pondered this last exchange since the night of my return. Agnes was restrained, tight, and I couldn’t tell if they had gotten to her. I didn’t want to believe it.
Back in the country, I sat where his chair once stood. It was the chair we all gathered around and where the plans were made. Where we aired our big thoughts. I envisioned leaning on the back of it, and looking over Francis’s shoulder. He contained a supply of what was necessary, without which he, and indeed, all of us must perish.
“Never more, oh God forgive you, Steerforth.” Francis was admonishing a lazy compatriot. “Actually, God has nothing to do with this. You must find the strength to go on, if for nothing else than for love…”
Francis had gone on for far to long, wasting his patience in trying to touch that passive Steerforth who appeared to me to regret having been a little lame, but would never come to much. Regardless, simple-minded Emily was in love with him. And whatever shall be entertained with regard to her, she usually got what she wanted. Without Emily’s dread of death - which, added to what Mr. Omer had told me, she would never have had the courage to ride out to Highgate, with Steerforth, where a bed was at their service. She trusted that her husband, and her little children, would get along without her.
I might have even respected her for pursuing a passion for the first time in her life, but alas, that is not what this affair was about. But I’m digressing…
Mrs. Micawbers was plying her pen with great assiduity. She was a writer and a dreamer, and in the end a thinker of mediocre thoughts. She and Agnes together, not only on account of their mutual affection, but also for their spiritual leanings, made a powerful presence in which I found solace, particularly during these odd times of uncertainty.
I had received a letter, importing that he would appear in the morning. Was it possible that Francis would be released or could be seen in public? I imagined the scene. All of us converging in the clustered village in the valley, with its wooden bridge and quaint architecture, it would be bittersweet. We would wait through the still evening and the dying light until he appeared.
But this manuscript, which was intended for no eyes but mine, was not about Francis or any such reunion of spirit. I thought,
“How hard I have worked at some of the happiest hours of my existence as they fleeted by. “
Now I had Davy to think of. Not that they had ever led me to believe in my own self; I’ve always known I’m disposable, replaceable as any of us. This thought make me happy. I could live with that.
I was unwilling to do it. I would not exploit her humble connections. It would render our whole project hopeless and corrupt. Such a thing was unthinkable and I refused. It wasn’t for long that I was an outcast, as I felt the rivers shifting towards my path. Particularly once Agnes was found again.
You see, she had been lost. Agnes was taken in. She managed to hide the boy in the cabinet in which her mother had once absconded her. I had only to imagine the interrogation and am sure it was not that much different from mine just over 15 months before. They were looking for me again.
“You are associated in my remembrance with Dora,” said the interrogator, “Tracing these imperfect characters thus far - which may be, or may not be impossible- means that we know things. We know you have a hand in it, and we need your truth.”
“If I might take the liberty of saying so, sir, I don’t think of Dora anymore. She is gone, disappeared. Gone the way of Francis. For a while I was sure enough that I would find her, in some cottage, stopping her ears again, against the rumors. But in fact she didn’t even know she had been betrayed. There was a conflagration in the distance, and I went to speak to her.”
“You see,” she continued, “it was Davy Peggotty. If I hadn’t told her he was a fraud, an informer, I’m sure she would have gone through with it. And then everything Dora fought for would have melted away. And now, I see her, getting up by candle-light on these dark mornings, busying herself with mundane matters, but I know not where she is, or with whom.”
Her cadence was hypnotic. Agnes could always manipulate by imperceptible degrees and it became a hopeless line of questioning. She was materially consciousness of all the scoundrel had done, and used part of the truth, for Davy had betrayed me, to derail the trail.
When I last saw him, Davy spoke of himself, and he saw in my conviction a reflected, momentary laceration of a wounded spirit. He was sensitive and gave his little head another little shake. This little movement told me everything, when he should have been clear and certain and told me the truth. He was not working for us any longer, and while he may have cared for me at one time, this was part of a bigger game. He had gone over and now I was alone, and had to eke out an existence knowing of his infidelity.
“When my child comes,” he said aloud, and with an energy of a lame horse, “love her.”
He had no idea what he was talking about, as there would be no child. At least not the one he imagined.
Mrs. Micawbers learned of it early on, for of course she was listening at the keyhole.
“I can only say for myself,” said my aunt, “that I will drink all the venom of life. I thought Davy would be true.”
She had a preference for re-engaging this handy young man; against whom I had fluttered and who had so clearly confessed his duplicity, yet, without a word. She said:
“Perhaps, upon the whole, Dora, this makes you more than you knew.” And with that, she checked the pantry. All this was done in a perfect manner, and she scarcely had been asunder for a moment, regretting Davy, before she bounced back and looked forward.
Ever since the night before last, I have felt crushed - to - a - undiscoverable atom. Thinking of the slothful, yet somehow transcendent Steerforth, I remember he told me a story about this unfortunate girl. I thought he was babbling at the time, but now think he was talking of me, whether he knew it or not.
I went back further, in my mind, to earlier betrayals. When Francis was forced to leave, I truly did not know what might be lost if we lost sight of him. He had left about forty minutes earlier, and I had to get out of that stuffy apartment. I walked along the in the damp, noticing the clicking sound of my heels on the pavement, in patterns, and the dull rain fell in a mist. I conjured Mr. Omer’s old frank smile, and tried to maintain my faith in our present Britannia-metal footing. So much time had passed, and what had we accomplished?
Eternally, I felt we were very unable to liquidate what was necessary. The very idea brought a tear into the manliest eye present. The very idea was my refuge in disappointment and distress, and I made some promises to myself. Maybe this is why we are saved in the end. Is this my conscience?
And I also think of Emily, and whether Emily was wicked or just lazy like her Steerforth? What can I say to her, when Emily tied up Mrs. Micawbers and ran with her beau? Whether my aunt supposed, for the moment, that she would be able to keep her property from these runaways.
“Its extraordinarily legal and formal,” said I.
My aunt replied, “I don’t think it was still on her mind when I bade her adieu; and Emilu said to me, ‘I tried to pacify Dora,’ but then she turned away her face, and shook her head at life. Then Emily added, ‘You know, Steerforth is positively delicious. He is charming.’ Poor Emily, she didn’t know what she was leaving behind, but then again, maybe she is the smart one of all of us.”
Hearing this, I pulled up a chair and positioned it at the open window; and I imagined, even at this late hour that they were rounding us up. There was a crowd of them, running down to the door, and handing us without care. With violence.
Early in the morning, I departed by boat with some of their property on board. Yes, the sacred package Traddles had delivered what seemed like ages ago. Funny how so much can unravel so quickly. I would start afresh elsewhere, continuing our efforts.
I had never been encouraged to walk about alone, but now it was necessary. I took the tablecloth after dinner and re-wrapped the package. It was a lawless adjustment - for all of our work had been perfectly lawless from beginning to end.
My pillars of faith had gathered. I wanted to be sure they understood.
“Indeed I do,” declared my aunt before I could even get a word out. If there ever was a time when I felt unwilling to move forward, it was just then. I needed strength. Agnes was there, and I needed her too.
“In short, love,” said Agnes, dropping her voice to a whisper, “I certainly understand, Dora. But first, I hope,” said Agnes, she began laughing, mysteriously, uncontrollably. My aunt and I laughed too. It was all we had left.
I acceded to the situation all the more readily, because I knew Mrs. Micawbers and Agnes would not forget about me. Perhaps they would continue the work. However much I reproached myself, I was gratified as Mrs. Micawbers, ran to me with glasses of punch, heavy on the whiskey.
“These are early days, Dora,” she pursued, “and Rome was not built in a day.”
Perhaps I sought to lead Agnes into my former role, and this was perhaps what my aunt had hinted at. For she had the boy. He was precious, and would commit no perjury on the part of the work. Of course, Agnes would do it in her own magical way. She was already there.
Thoroughly unconscious of this prediction in my mind, Agnes would continue to occupy her modest life. This wouldn’t be in the least astonishing to me as part of the change that we worked for was centered around daily life.
Just before we parted, Agnes said to me,
“I have never, but in your presence, interchanged a word with him. I was determined to keep the two subjects apart…” She trailed off as we walked towards the dock, side by side.
She left me at the dock for I didn’t want her to know my destination or my vessel’s name. It would be better this way.
Later that night, as the boat pulled out of the harbor, I looked back at the trees long-ago planted in the Commons. The atmosphere was thick, and with any luck, I would drift out to sea without incident. Francis and I would now be out in the ether, alone, together. Sometime, I’d like to return, to peep in on my past, maybe, like a ghost, out of the wind.
This is the third installment of A diary of mysterious difficulties…. Check out the first installment in our November 2013 issue.
Laura Raicovich works as president and executive director of the Queens Museum. Her book At the Lightning Field is out this April from Coffee House Press. She is the author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties (Publication Studio), a book based on Viagra and Cialis spam, and is an editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books)