I made my way to Abney Park to bury my father on a crisp, wintry Sunday. The coachman lead the hearse and four plumed horses away from the churchyard as I followed close behind. The bell tolled from the belfry as the undertaker approached me, handing me a note of indebtedness for the preparation of the body. 'Twas Christmas day, and even more than the guilt I felt for my absence these past three years, I felt numb from disappointment, as I was the only person in attendance. I should have know they would not come. I tried to divert my eyes from the emptiness surrounding me as the clergyman continued. The grave diggers had dug a fine trench, befitting my father's tall stature. Two men began to raise the stone as they lowered the lead coffin down beneath the frozen earth. The headstone's epitaph read:
In Memory of
Henry A. Westley
Who departed this life
December 20, 1887
Aged 62 years
From whence I came, thereto I go
Husband to Mary Elizabeth Murray, Father to Charles & Walter
The snow began to fall and I remained there alone at my father's grave. The inhabitants of Stoke Newington had no doubt begun their festivities. I could hear the faint carols trolling from St. Mary's, and I longed for Elyse to be again at my side. How father had adored her! Her absence left a drafty emptiness, and the little one . . . she evokes a pain I cannot altogether bear. I could hear her laughing as if she were close enough to embrace. I started when I felt two small arms suddenly about me, and there she was. "Adeline!" My eyes strained through the coming tears as I embraced the child. I looked out into the distance--'twas a vision--my Elyse! My heart thundered inside my chest as she waded through the drifts of snow. Had it really been three years? She extended a gloved hand to greet me, "Hello, Charles . . . I thought it only fitting for Addie to visit her grandfather's grave." She looked as angelic as the memory I had kept of her, but the beauty faded from my mind as I inquired, "Is Walter with you?" She replied, "No--he would not come." I gazed back down at the little girl; my heart twisted as the unwelcome questions flooded into my heart and mind. My desire to make amends was censured by reason. I asked, "How long do you intend to persecute me, Elyse? Be truthful! Am I the father of this child?" Her expression was closed and distant. She replied only, "We are leaving." She fetched Adeline, taking her by the hand and as she passed me, prompted, "Adeline, say goodbye to your . . . uncle." I paused to temper my growing enmity, clutching at Elyse's arm and turning her towards me, "You cannot do this to me--and you cannot do it to Walter." Her face softened for the briefest of moments, then she pulled out of my grip and turned away without a word.
I watched as they left the cemetery, then began my own trek back to my father's house. Waiting for me upon the front steps was a large package, wrapped in brown paper. There was no note, but I soon realized who had left it for me. I removed the wrappings immediately, to find a carefully rendered portrait of a small girl--the same small girl who had recently been borne away from me by her cold and beautiful mother. There was no welcome upon my entrance into the house, it seemed more vacant and unfriendly than when I had left it last. I started a fire and settled into my father's chair, propping the painting on a chair opposite my place so that I could gaze on it. Just as I was nodding off to sleep, there was a knock at the door. I roused to answer it, but this unexpected guest let herself in. In the doorway stood a lovely young woman. She introduced herself in a strong French accent, "You must be Charles. I have heard so much about you--please forgive me for not attending the funeral--my mother was a dear friend of Henry's and sent me to tend to the household duties so that you may have sufficient time to mourn. My name is Fifette." I welcomed her inside, and bade her choose any room she would like for her keeping. I imagine it was not difficult to detect my sadness, as she invited me to tell her more about my father. I am afraid I could not keep my troubles from this enjoyable woman, and did confide in her all that burdened me. She, in turn, told me of Paris--and how intriguing it did seem to me! I was seized with a desire to start over. My spirit was indeed uplifted by the fortuitous gift of her kindness.
As this most unholy of Christmases comes to a close, I shall leave on these pages a resolve to begin anew. Mademoiselle Fifette fetched me some brandy, and I felt that no other Christmas gift could have been so fine. Tonight, I raise a glass to tomorrow . . . and to Paris.
(We would like to extend special thanks to David Hunter for originally featuring this Special Edition Letter on his blog.)