Mr. and Mrs. Peabody were both cheating on each other with my assistance. However, while I disliked romantic intrigue, I was not one to judge my clients for their stupidity.
They came to me in secret, the each unaware that both were using my services. I agreed to receive letters for them at my office, as well as write and send their replies.
The work should have been straightforward. Unfortunately, they had somehow each concluded that I was not only a scribe, but their most trusted confidant. I’d had an ongoing headache for weeks.
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. It perfectly matched the ruffled pink monstrosity of a dress she wore and could make one dizzy just by looking at it.
Her cheeks were flushed to a brilliant fuchsia, and her small eyes and nose crinkled as she glared at the bags and purses dangling from her arms. Wrenching one open, she stuffed the kerchief inside before turning to me with a bright face.
“I’m sure you know why I’m here. I need to reply to the letter from 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 began to gush about her mystery admirer. “He’s been hinting that we should meet, and I must say: I don’t mind a bit. He’s the most romantic man in the world, and I love him dearly!” Then 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.
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… descriptive.”
“But do you think he’ll like it?”
“Madam, I haven’t a clue.”
Her brows squished together like hairy sausages. “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?”
“Rest assured, they do not, madam.”
“Hmmm,” she said, and I detected a hint of irritation.
Since the first day she’d shown up at my office, she eyed me up like a piece of meat at the market. I could easily ignore stares, but if her letters became any more lurid, I was afraid of developing nightmares soon.
Not for the first time, I wondered if all the silver I got from her was worth it.
“Shall we continue?” I asked.
She looked sour as though I’d inconvenienced her. “Oh, all right then. So, the next part 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. Trying not to sneeze, I gingerly folded then sealed it, and tucked away the piece of silver she left on the desk.
I escorted her outside, making polite conversation about the amount of rain recently. A Carrier was waiting nearby and hurried up to the door. She took the letter, as well as the two copper pieces for expedited delivery.
“I’ll stop in the late afternoon to see if a reply has come,” Mrs. Peabody said, her small eyes glinting. “He’ll be so worked up at the thought of me in a—” She looked around and dropped her voice to a stage 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.”
While Mrs. Peabody fussed to pull gloves from one of her bags, a diminutive gray figure approached my office. Unfortunately, he arrived behind Mrs. Peabody just as she dropped a glove. Turning and bending to pick it up, the unexpected sway of her hips sent the figure tumbling like a straw hat in a strong breeze.
Mrs. Peabody straightened abruptly, unsure what bumped into her. Upon seeing no one nearby, 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.
“Yes, yes, 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 couldn’t tell if he was staring at her voluptuous posterior in awe or admiration. Knowing my mentor as I did, it was the latter.
I studied him. Matthew was a famous master scribe from a monastery in the countryside, but he didn’t look it.
He wore the plain gray robes of a monk, and had bristly silver hair cut into a bowl shape with a bald spot that gleamed in the overhead sun. But both his robes and hair were rumpled, and the stubble on his cheeks and breadcrumbs on his front suggested it wasn’t just from the tumble.
Despite his shabby appearance, Matthew’s work was legendary in the Empire. Each loop and stroke he formed was a work of art that came as near to perfection as anything I’d ever seen. Everything I knew about being a scribe, I had learned from him.
Unfortunately, he had a taste for bawdy humor and practical jokes that was forever causing his fellow monks trouble. Which is why, every six months for the past two years, they sent him to me.
I didn’t mind. In fact, I looked forward to his visits. We dined together in the evenings, talking about the state of the Empire, and the finer points of our craft. Pranks aside, I looked up to him a great deal.
“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 meant to visit as soon as I got to town, 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 someday, you 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 to bring joy and laughter to the world.”
“I assure you, I appreciate your efforts immensely,” I told him, a wry smile appearing before I could help it.
An ink-stained hand slapped my shoulder. “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.”
“Already? Forgiveness came quickly this time. Will you at least have supper with me tonight?”
Matthew scratched his head. “Hmm. I have some business to finish, but I wouldn’t turn down a good supper and beer at the tavern. At any rate, just dropped by to show my face, and now I must be off again. Meddling to do.”
He wiggled his fingers like a wicked villain from a play and left with a spring in his step.
An hour later, I was in my office working on menial copy work when a Carrier arrived.
“Thank you,” I said.
He shoved a plain white envelope into my hands, then sprinted off toward his next delivery.
I took one glance at who the envelope was addressed to and sighed. Tucking it into my desk drawer, I continued my work while waiting for the recipient to arrive. It shouldn’t take long.
Sure enough, not even half an hour passed when a series of timid taps sounded at the door.
He was early, but I got up to let him in.
“Good morning Mr. Peabody,” I greeted.
“Is it still morning? Oh dear, I am too early. I know we agreed on noon, but I was so eager for a reply. Do you mind? I was sure I’d left the house on time, but it seems not. How rude of me.” He chattered on like this for a few seconds more, bony fingers fiddling with his coat buttons.
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.
The camouflage worked as long as he wasn’t seen in the company of his wife. When they were together, however, he looked even thinner, and she looked even rounder. And if you stood them side by side, they formed a clear number ’10’.
“Fortunately, you are not too early,” I told the man, and gave him the envelope.
He snatched it from my hands and tore it open, pouring over the words like a man starving. After reading it twice, he looked up and scooted to the edge of his chair.
“She wants to meet,” he breathed, eyes so wide they nearly popped out of his skull. “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.”
He sighed like a dreamy adolescent. “She’s just so wonderful! I can hardly believe there’s such a woman in the world! I think… I think I want to meet her too.”
The thought made me cringe inside. Despite being my most frequent clients, I sincerely hoped they would not end up dragging me into things after they each met their ‘secret admirer’.
As if fate had heard my thoughts, the door burst open before I could even open my inkwell. Seeing the new arrival, I braced myself.
“I know I said I’d come in the late afternoon, but I couldn’t wait any— “
Mrs. Peabody stopped short. Her eyes bulged at the sight of her husband. Her mouth worked without sound.
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 sheets of paper her husband clutched.
“How did you… how did you get that letter?” she asked, her face turning dangerously purple.
Mr. Peabody went even more pale, if possible, and he hugged the letter close to his heart. “It’s mine,” he said, his voice quivering. “And since it’s come to this, I must tell you: I’ve met the most wonderful woman, and we’ve been writing to each other. It was wrong of me, I know. But I can no longer ignore my heart. She is everything that is beautiful and good in this world, and I love her dearly.”
His voice had risen, but the trembling intensified until I wondered if he’d rattle off the chair. Mrs. Peabody exploded, but not in the way he expected.
“It’s you!” she cried and burst into noisy tears.
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 slouched in my chair, wishing to disappear. No, I wished they would disappear so that I did not have to witness this nauseating drama playing out.
“I never imagined-” Mr. Peabody’s voice broke off, no doubt choked by the serendipity.
It looked like they wouldn’t go away in the next few seconds. Resigned, 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 blushed and tittered.
“It was my pleasure to be of service,” I lied. Truthfully, I wanted them to remove themselves and their emotions from my office.
Still, they were the most high-end clients I currently had, so I flipped a card from my pocket. “I’m sure you will no longer require letters of a romantic nature. But should your friends or associates ever need the services of a scribe, please send them to my humble office.”
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 collapsed into my chair with relief.
Already, my headache began to recede. But when I saw the letter they’d forgotten on my desk, however, my left eyelid twitched.
A light tapping on the door made me almost groan out loud. I was hoping they’d forgotten about the letter, but all my hopes had been dashed today.
After ensuring my professional smile was in place, I prepared myself to greet the Peabodies again.
Rather than the Peabodies, Matthew greeted me with a devious smile.
“Come, my boy. The business I had is done. Let me treat you to a beer.”
“Matthew,” I said, “it’s barely noon.”
“That’s not too early. Besides, it looks like you need one.”
I couldn’t argue with that. I put on my coat, locked up my office, and followed him to our usual tavern.
“So, Matthew. I believe I have this figured out, but I’d like to clarify a few things.”
“Clarify away,” he said.
“What made you write the first letter to Mrs. Peabody?”
He grinned. “You guessed it! How long have you known?”
I gave him and offended look. “As if I couldn’t recognize the hand of my mentor.”
“Ha! I taught you well,” he said, puffed out with pride. “At any rate, at first I simply wanted to send letter to express my admiration for such a fine woman. When I poked around some more, I found out she had a husband. And what a fine pair they were! Like oil and water, the two couldn’t be more different. So, when she replied to me, I decided it was a great opportunity for some fun.”
“Don’t give me that,” he said with reproach. “Even you managed to get yourself tangled up in it.”
“Mrs. Peabody showed up one day asking to pen a letter because she had snoopy servants. I would not have chosen to get involved with this whole affair.”
Matthew waved a dismissive hand. “Well, no one is perfect. Your unexpected involvement was fun, actually. Imagine my surprise when I opened a letter one day an immediately recognized the hand of my most prized disciple.”
His only disciple, in fact. His antics had sent many young monks running away in tears. I wasn’t surprised that he was pleased with my involvement, either. If there was one thing Matthew loved more than mischief, it was unwilling accomplices.
“And so it began,” I said calmly, staring into my half-empty tankard.
“And so it began,” he agreed. “Mrs. Peabody came to you to for the first time to write a letter on her behalf. Then sent it to me. After transcribing it, I sent the thing to Mr. Peabody. And since they share the snoopy servants, he also went to you to have his reply penned and sent. And that one came to me as well.”
He did a drumroll on the table. “So, there you had it! A married couple writing to one another as each other’s secret admirers, with the two of us as intermediaries. Truly a masterpiece! I have outdone myself this time.”
Knowing that whatever I said would be the wrong thing to say, I kept my mouth shut.
He tapped two fingers on his lips thoughtfully. “Now that I think about it, if you recognized my hand, why didn’t you say anything?”
I lifted my chin, peering down at Matthew with mild reprehension. “I am a professional. It’s none of my business who a letter goes to, or who replies to it.”
His eyes twinkled. “Admit it,” he said. “You wanted to see them happy too.”
I sniffed. “I wanted nothing of the sort.”
Picking up my beer, I added with nonchalance, “But if they found happiness partly because of me, then so be it.”