Mr. and Mrs. Peabody were both cheating on each other with my assistance. One week I’d never heard of the couple, and the next I had become their most trusted confidant.
Since they were each exchanging letters with mystery lovers, they could not – for obvious reasons – write or receive them at home, and so they sought out the services of a scribe. I agreed to receive letters for them at my office, as well as write and send their replies. The whole thing was a nuisance.
Still, I thought, bowing as Mrs. Peabody squeezed her hefty figure into my office, one had to respect a person who appreciated letters as much as they did. It also didn’t hurt that my savings had increased dramatically thanks to their patronage.
“Your doorway is uncommonly small,” Mrs. Peabody complained.
“Indeed madam,” I said, averting my eyes from her girth, “the doors in this part of town are very narrow.”
She blotted at her plump neck and forehead with a lacy pink handkerchief that matched the ruffled pink monstrosity of a dress she’d chosen to wear. Her cheeks were flushed to a brilliant fuchsia, and her blue eyes and squashed nose crinkled as she glared at the bags and purses dangling from her arms. She wrenched one open and stuffed the kerchief inside, then moved her attention to me, face brightening.
“I’m sure you know why I’m here. I need to reply to the letter you gave me yesterday,” Mrs. Peabody said, settling her generous bottom into the cushioned chair facing my desk.
I flipped back my coattails and took my own seat. “Of course.”
As I readied the inkwell, blotter and a fresh sheet of paper, Mrs. Peabody continued speaking. “He’s been hinting that we should meet, and I don’t mind a bit. This is the most romance I’ve had in a long time.” She snorted. “My husband doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body.”
I didn’t reply to this, but took up my pen and indicated to Mrs. Peabody to go ahead.
“’My darling’,” she began. I made a graceful swash on the ‘g’ of ‘darling’ the way she preferred.
She closed her eyes and her voice took on a winsome tone. “’How I crave you. I yearn to clasp you to my bosom but instead must console myself with mere pieces of paper. Late at night I pull out your letters and go for a walk as I read them, dressed only in a thin white nightgown that clings to my skin in the evening mist. I kiss your letters and imagine that you are there to hold me.’”
At this point, Mrs. Peabody snapped her eyes open. “What do you think about that so far?”
I re-read the passage and cleared my throat. “It is very, uh, descriptive.”
“But do you think he’ll like it?”
“Madam, I haven’t a clue.”
Her brows squished together. “Oh come now, you can’t tell me this doesn’t affect you in some way. Don’t racy bits like this make you feel all fluttery or embarrassed?”
“To be embarrassed, Mrs. Peabody, one must have an imagination. I assure you, I rid myself of mine years ago, so you need not be concerned about my sensibilities.”
“Hmmm,” she said, and I detected a hint of irritation.
Not for the first time, I concluded that women were the strangest creatures. “Shall we continue?” I said, hoping to move on.
She rolled her eyes as though I had inconvenienced her. “All right, so the next line should read ‘If only I could see you my darling, just once, so that I would have no more doubts of your love for me. Send me a letter naming the hour of our meeting! Eternally yours, Ruth’.”
I signed her name with a flourish. Mrs. Peabody took the letter and sprayed it with flowery perfume before handing it back. I gingerly folded then sealed it and tucked awaythe piece of silver she offered.
I escorted her outside, making polite conversation about the amount of rain recently. A Carrier was waiting nearby and hurried up to the door. I gave him the address and one copper piece for delivery, plus another piece to ensure the letter was handled with the greatest care and speed.
“I’ll stop in this afternoon to see if a reply has come,” Mrs. Peabody said. “He’ll be so worked up at the thought of me in a -“ She looked around and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Well, you know. I’m sure he’ll waste no time replying.”
My smile didn’t lose an inch of politeness. “Of course,” I said, giving her another bow. “Until this afternoon then.”
A gray figure approached as Mrs. Peabody fussed to pull gloves from one of her purses. She dropped a glove, turned and bent to pick it up, and the sway of her hips catapulted the figure backward. Mrs. Peabody straightened abruptly, but upon seeing no one around, shrugged and went on her way.
“Matthew, are you all right?” I stepped onto the street to help a scrawny man haul himself out of a pile of refuse.
“Fine, I’m fine,” he said, pushing away my hands and struggling to his feet. “The rump on that woman is a force to be reckoned with.” He squinted off into the distance where Mrs. Peabody’s figure was parting traffic.
I studied him. Matthew was a famous master scribe from a monastery in the countryside, though he didn’t look it. He wore the plain gray robes of a monk and had bristlysilver hair cut into a bowl shape with a bald spot on top that gleamed in the morning sun. Both his robes and hair were rumpled, and the stubble on his cheeks and bread crumbs on his front suggested it wasn’t just from the tumble. As he brushed off his clothes I noticed his hands were stained with fresh ink.
Everything I knew about being a scribe, I had learned from Matthew. His work was legendary. Each letter and stroke he formed was a work of art that came as near to perfection as anything I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, he also had a taste for bawdy humor and practical jokes and was forever causing his fellow monks trouble. Which is why, every six months or so, they sent him to me.
I didn’t mind. In fact, I looked forward to his visits. We often dined together in the evenings, and he would help me improve my craft. Despite his addiction to meddling and pranks, he usually didn’t involve me in whatever mischief he got into. Usually.
“It’s good to see you, sir,” I said warmly.
He beamed and thumped me on the back. “You as well, boy, you as well.”
“I wondered when you would show yourself.”
“I meant to visit you sooner, but I’ve been busy with a little joke. Care to hear about it? It’s to do with someone you know, actually. A very provocative story!”
“No thank you, I’ve had enough provocativeness for today,” I said, shuddering at the thought of Mrs. Peabody’s nightgown. “Your meddling will get you into real trouble some dayyou know.”
“Come on now, live a little! You didn’t always have a stick up your arse, there must be some part of you that appreciates my efforts.”
“I assure you, I appreciate your efforts immensely,” I told him, smiling despite myself.
“That’s the spirit! Anyway, I came to let you know that I’m leaving tomorrow. Father Brown has forgiven me, so back home I go.”
I was a little disappointed he was leaving so soon. “Forgiveness came quickly this time. Will you at least have supper with me tonight?”
Matthew scratched his head. “No, no, if we do that I’ll drink too much and you’ll probably get all weepy and beg me to stay. No, I have some business to finish up, anyways. Meddling, as you put it.” He laughed like a wheezing donkey and left with a spring in his step.
I returned to my office to find a Carrier waiting for me on the step.
“Message for a Mr. Peabody at this address,” the youth said.
“Thank you,” I told him. He shoved the plain white envelope into my hands and sprinted off toward his next delivery. I went inside, set the letter on my desk and began to do some menial copy work as I waited for my next visitor.
Sure enough, not even an hour had passed when a series of timid taps sounded at the door like a bird pecking wood. I got up to let Mr. Peabody in.
“Good morning Mr. Peabody.”
He greeted me anxiously and went to wait in front of my desk, his bony fingers tracing the buttons up and down his coat.
Mr. Peabody was as sharp and lean as his wife was soft and round. He had a pale, gaunt face with an enormous beak of a nose and long stick limbs like a stork. Painfully aware of his physique, Mr. Peabody camouflaged himself with various padded garments, all in drab colors to deflect attention. It worked as long as he wasn’t seen in the company of his wife. When they were together, he looked even thinner and she looked even rounder, and if you stood them side by side they formed a clear number ’10’.
“A letter arrived for you,” I said, and gave him the envelope.
He snatched it from my hands and tore it open, inhaling the words like a man starving. After reading it over twice, he looked up and took a careful perch on the edge of his chair.
“She wants to meet. I need to think of a reply. What should say?”
“What you say is completely your decision Mr. Peabody. I do not create words, I merely record them.”
“She just sounds so wonderful! I can hardly believe there’s such a woman in the world! I think… I think I want to meet her.”
The thought made me inwardly cringe. I had a very strong suspicion who the Peabodys were each writing to,but kept my opinions to myself. It was none of my business, after all.
I laid out the paper. “Let’s begin then.”
He leaned forward eagerly and opened his mouth but before he could speak the door burst open, causing us both to jump.
“I know I said I’d come in the afternoon but I couldn’t waitany—“
Mrs. Peabody stopped short. Her eyes bulged at the sight of her husband. Her mouth worked without sound.
My stomach sloshed like ink in a bottle as I looked back and forth between the two, and I suddenly found myself struggling with an uncomfortable inner dilemma. I am a nonpartisan, I reminded myself, a neutral party.
Mr. Peabody shrunk into himself, his skin turning from white to grey. “Hello, my dear. What brings you here?”
His wife took in me, the desk and the blank sheet of paper on it. Then, without warning, she burst into sobs.
“It was you!” she blubbered.
Her husband braced himself for vengeful wrath, but she merely held out her hands. “The letters. It was you the whole time! You’re him. My soulmate!”
Mr. Peabody’s eyes widened as he grasped her meaning. He gave a laugh of disbelief then leaped to his feet and pulled his wife into a passionate embrace.
“I never imagined-” His voice broke off, choking on serendipity.
I reached for my handkerchief, saw the mucus streaming from Mrs. Peabody’s nose, and thought better of it. Surely her husband would take care of things. Right on cue, Mr. Peabody whipped out his own handkerchief and tenderly dabbed at his wife’s soggy face.
“I don’t think we’ll be back,” Mrs. Peabody said to me, not taking her eyes from her other half. “Right Precious?”
Mr. Peabody bathed his wife in a sappy gaze and she melted.
“It was my pleasure to be of service,” I said graciously, inwardly wishing them and their emotions out of my office. Still, they’d been very profitable clients, so I flipped a card from my pocket. “I’m sure you will not require any more letters of a romantic nature, but should you ever find yourself in need of my services again, be assure that I am always private, prudent and practical.”
Mr. Peabody took the card and they both left, sniffling and clinging to each other like newlyweds. I waved them off from the street then returned to my chair and collapsed into it, relieved that the entire ordeal was over.
Staring at the door, it suddenly occurred to me that Mr. Peabody had left his letter behind. I eyed it, laying innocently on my desk.
No, I shouldn’t, I told myself. It isn’t professional.
But the temptation was too great. After inwardly scolding myself, I slid the letter toward me and opened it, expecting to see the ardent vows of love I had written down for Mr. Peabody yesterday.
My eyes scanned handwriting that I immediately realized was not my own. It was familiar, however. Very familiar. Each letter and stroke was a work of art that came as near to perfection as anything I’d ever seen.
“Oh Matthew,” I muttered. “Always meddling.”