Matthew is eight years old. He sits on the floor, crosslegged, with a book in his lap and his eyes wide.
Isobel watches from the couch, as he is entranced by the book, slowly tracing his eyes over the words and smiling every once in a while, or rounding his mouth into a ‘o’ shape.
He finishes reading a page, but he hesitates to turn it. He stares at the carpet in front of him, and then at the words again, and finally turns his head to his mother.
“Why does the cat walk by himself?” he asks.
Isobel raises an eyebrow. “I’m not sure. Does the book tell you?”
“He wants independence, which I suppose is alright, but I don’t understand. Why would he want to walk completely alone?” Matthew purses his lips. “He says all places are alike to him. But there are so many beautiful places, how could they all be alike?”
“Does the cat have any other reason for wanting to be alone?”
Matthew shrugs and closes the book. “I suppose I simply don’t understand why anyone would choose to be alone forever.”
“Neither do I, Matthew. But I’m sure the cat has his reasons.”
Matthew is thirteen years old. It is his birthday, and he now has exactly what he wanted as presents: books, books, and more books. They sit in a stack on his bedside table, and he sits on the edge of his bed, dangling his legs and looking over all of them, deciding which he wants to read first.
Isobel had wanted him to put them on the bookshelf in their small library, but Reginald had convinced her not to push it. “We won’t be hearing from him much either way,” he said, winking at Matthew. “Might as well let him keep them with him. They’re his.”
Matthew had smiled gratefully at his father, and had gathered up the stack of books in his arms.
He sits on the bed with two next to him to decide between: Frankenstein and The Count of Monte Cristo. He closes his eyes and happens to grab The Count of Monte Cristo.
There’s something that enthralls him about the elaborate revenge of the story, and the very fact that a man who came from nothing was able to do anything.
Matthew doesn’t come from nothing, but the story thrills him nonetheless. By the time it’s nearing midnight, his mother knocks on the door. His eyes are red and bleary, but he needs to know what happens next.
Isobel knocks on the door, comes in, pats his shoulder, and gently takes the book from his hands. “Happy birthday, my darling. Get some sleep.” She turns down the gas lamp in his room and kisses his forehead.
As soon as she leaves, Matthew turns the lamp up again and picks up his book.
Matthew is eighteen years old. Reginald is 56 years old. Or, at least, Reginald was 56 years old.
Matthew is without a father.
He didn’t get home in time to see Reginald, either. Matthew got on the train from Oxford as soon as he got the telegram from his mother that his father was suddenly very ill, but it was to no avail.
He had knocked on the door, and when he saw his mother’s face, he knew.
He can’t cry, though. God knows he cried on the train ride home, despite the stares. But the shock of his father’s death is cold and hard and Matthew almost doesn’t believe it. He had been so healthy and lively and suddenly…
A heart attack, Isobel had said. And like that, Reginald Crawley was gone.
Matthew comes out of his room, wandering, unsure where to go.
His feet take him to the library, and he sees a book on the table. The Divine Comedy. His father must have been reading it.
Matthew curls up on the couch, in his father’s favorite spot. It still smells like Reginald, and it comforts Matthew.
He picks up the book. His father was on the third section of the book, Paradiso. Matthew didn’t go back to the beginning, he just began to read, and something struck him.
His father had known. Why else would he have been reading a novel about heaven? This both chills Matthew and comforts him.
Matthew isn’t Catholic, but he agrees with some of the book. There is a God, and heaven, and if anyone deserves to be there, it’s Reginald Crawley.
Maybe because Reginald knew, he had left it there on purpose.
For Matthew to know.
Matthew is twenty-eight years old. There is something next to his bed. And on top of it, a letter. Signed ‘Mary’.
It’s been a few weeks since his birthday, and he hadn’t really expected to receive anything from her. They didn’t really get along. But there it is, a package with a letter from her.
He tentatively opens the letter. Mary’s handwriting is elegant and his heart drops in his chest.
I apologize for how dreadfully I have been treating you. Both my mother and my sister have brought this to my attention. (Sybil, of course; Edith might have but I would never listen to her anyway) I know I have been, although I cannot regret everything I have said, because quite a bit of it is true. I know it was your birthday a few weeks ago, and here is my late contribution. I assume you have read it, considering our conversation on the topic, but in any case, enjoy it. I doubt this can make up for what I have said to you, but I hope it can be a step in the right direction. After all, we must live with each other and peace is always preferable to war.
Matthew tears open the package, and inside is a thin book. The story of Perseus and Andromeda.
Matthew recalls their discussion at one of his first dinners, and smiles.
This is certainly a step in the right direction.
Matthew is thirty-three years old. And he understands now.
He is broken beyond repair, by war and injury and heartbreak, and he sits (after all, there is nothing else he can do) with books in his lap whenever he is not too tired, and he understands so much of what he read when he was young.
He understands the cat who walked by himself. Because now he is the cat, apart from the irony that he cannot walk. But he has empathy for the cat, who wants nothing more than to be independent through a meaningless, dull life. All places look alike because there is nowhere he can go, and nothing he can do.
He understands the Count of Monte Cristo, and how his desire for revenge was both all consuming and self destructive. War has turned him into a monster, it seems, and he has such strong hatred toward the Germans. They took so many lives, the lives of his friends, his legs… But Matthew also realizes that revenge is both impossible and impractical.
He even understands his father, and why he left The Divine Comedy open on the table in the library. He has been so close to death for so long, and there is such comfort in knowing that there was life after death, that he would see his father and his friends again, and that he had a chance, too, to go somewhere far better than the earth. He isn’t afraid of death anymore; how bad could it be? To be in heaven would be far better than his meager existence.
He only doesn’t understand Perseus and Andromeda; the story of a gallant hero saving the woman he loves doesn’t strike him anymore. There is no valor, there is no honor in fighting, there is only dirt and mud and pain and screams.
Matthew used to understand heroism. But for all that he understands now, he doesn’t understand that anymore.
Matthew is thirty-seven years old. And everything is clear.
He sits with his four year old son on his lap, with his wife by his side, and reads the story of Perseus and Andromeda to George until he falls asleep and Matthew tucks him into bed.
Matthew understands Perseus now. He was not trying to be valiant or heroic. He just wanted to save the woman he loves.
He squeezes Mary’s hand. “Your gift has come in handy,” he says, with a smirk.
“I’m glad,” she replies, and kisses him.