|Jul/Aug 2003 fiction|
I have not seen them with my own eyes, but I believe they are there, staring out from the shadows with a patient, thirsting gaze. There are some stories which, in the manner of their retelling, shed new light on those details which had hitherto seemed inconsequential, allowing us an insight into that which had been undisclosed. Many years ago I attempted such a course, tried to put flesh on the bones of rumour and speculation, believing that in so doing, I would be righting a terrible wrong. I was mistaken—the case of Mr. P— is not such a tale. Rather, it is a labyrinth of whisperings, of hints and half-truths, of betrayal and lies, and the truth I attempted to impose on it, was no truth at all. Thus have my motives changed, for what I hope this process of transcription will uncover is not nebulous truth, but the substance of forgetting.
My tale has its origins in Mr. P—'s sensational account of the events surrounding the death of M. Valdemar. Had he remained silent on the subject, then perhaps I would not have been compelled to write my own, contrary interpretation of the case. That my version of events never entered the public domain was not due to accident or neglect, but was rather a decision entirely of my own making, the reasons for which you may presently understand.
In an attempt to correct what he rightly saw as the "garbled or exaggerated account" that had infiltrated society, Mr. P— took it upon himself to present, in the guise of an entertainment, the facts in the aforementioned case. I do not dispute the antecedents as related, as Mr. P—'s somewhat morbid interest in mesmerism—along with all other manner of arcane and occult concerns—was well documented, not least in the lurid tales of phantasy which had already appeared in the pages of Harper's, The Gentleman's Magazine and various other journals of dubious literary merit. All I will say is that the version of events put forward by Mr. P— bore little relation to the truth. I say this with some measure of certainty, for not only was I present at M. Valdemar's house for most of the events narrated, but it was on my own memoranda that P— based his fictionalised, not to say mendacious, account.
My involvement in the case began with the message I received from Mr. P— that Sunday morning, a summons to attend him at the home of M. Valdemar. Upon arrival, my friend greeted me effusively and showed me the now infamous note that had brought him hence the previous day. Having apprised me of the situation and asked if I would transcribe a record of whatever might occur, Mr. P— briefly outlined the diagnosis he had received as to Valdemar's phthisic state. On performing my own examination of the latter, I was puzzled at the claim that his lungs were in a state of advanced ossification, and that an aneurysm of the aorta was suspected; in truth it seemed to me an exaggeration of the true state of affairs. After consulting with the attendant nurses, I diagnosed spasms of the bronchi in the lungs, which is to say a prolonged and severe asthmatic attack.
Though I was but eighteen months into my medical studies, I must point out in support of my contrary diagnosis, that my tutor was Professor Krempe the Younger, latterly of Ingolstadt, who was, as you are no doubt aware, an authority regarding ailments of the respiratory system. Indeed, having scrutinised an edited version of my memoranda in the weeks following M. Valdemar's final dissolution, Professor Krempe confirmed the accuracy of my diagnosis of the unfortunate man's original condition.
Upon communicating my opinion to Mr. P—, I was reminded as to the reason for my presence. In short, my role was that of witness, no more. Despite my protestations, P— was adamant and before I could further object, he had roused Valdemar and had compelled him to confirm that, with his dissolution being imminent—in the considered opinions of two noteworthy physicians—he wished to proceed with the experiment.
Although it had been agreed that we would await the arrival of these physicians before commencing with the experiment, at five minutes before eight that evening, Mr. P— became extremely agitated and announced that he would begin the mesmerisation without further delay. In truth, even M. Valdemar insisted upon it, expressing his fear that we had delayed too long. Thereupon, Mr. P— proceeded to move his hands from side to side over Valdemar's head, at the same time whispering invocations which were insensible to me and which seemed to have no discernible effect on the patient. I wrote hastily in my notebook, trying to describe the ritual and at the same time make a note of P—'s appearance—his face shining with perspiration in the dim candlelight, his eyes, red-rimmed and strangely vacant. He persisted in his attempt to mesmerise Valdemar for well over an hour, his prolonged efforts not only wearying Valdemar, but myself also, such that I finally entreated him to cease his endeavours.
We retired to the sitting room, where P— drew a silver flask from his black valise. "Here," he said, thrusting it into my hands. "Brandy—it will fortify us for another attempt."
I drank hesitantly, having little experience of strong liquor, yet desirous of something to soothe my agitated nerves. Within moments I felt a sense of well-being flowing through my veins, allowing my thoughts to become more focused. I settled back into a comfortable armchair and asked P— what he planned to do next.
He glanced at the clock on the mantle and said, "The doctors will arrive soon. I think it best we wait for them before trying again." As he spoke, his gaze strayed to the door of Valdemar's chamber and I guessed him to be preoccupied still with the failure of his experiment thus far. He turned back to me and bade me rest until the doctors arrived. He would sit with Valdemar in the interim, he said, before taking up his valise and disappearing into the sick man's room.
These eminent physicians arrived shortly after ten o'clock. "My good friend, Doctor Theodore L—," Mr. P— introduced me, informing them that I had agreed to transcribe a record of the proceedings. Although Doctors D— and F— greeted me courteously and listened attentively to P—'s account of events thus far, they failed to examine M. Valdemar, merely glancing at him through the open door to his room. By the time we returned to Valdemar's bedside, he was in a state of semi-consciousness. When Mr. P— commenced with his passes, they were of a vertical, rather than lateral nature, and while the patient's breathing became somewhat laborious, there seemed to be no other change in his condition. Then, after some minutes had passed, and with a suddenness which caught us off guard, a deep, audible sigh escaped his lips, which in turn, caused an utter stillness in his frame.
"Good God!" I cried. "He's dead!"
Mr. P— silenced me with a glare and directed Dr. D— to listen to Valdemar's heart. "No," the doctor informed us. "But death cannot be long in coming." At his signal, I took hold of the patient's wrist and was struck at the barely perceptible pulse. It suggested that if he had not yet passed into Elysium, it was because he was still negotiating with Charon a price for the passage. Disturbed at what I assumed to be his imminent demise, I retreated from the bedside and was followed by the doctors. While we fortified ourselves with cups of strong tea, Mr. P— continued with series of what appeared to me increasingly desperate passes over Valdemar's head. We watched from across the room, each of us silent, fearing perhaps that our own dark thoughts would be mirrored in the others' minds.
On the stroke of midnight, P— bade us attend the patient. Fully expecting that M. Valdemar would by this time have succumbed to his illness, and still troubled by grave doubts as to its exact nature, I was surprised to find his condition not worse, but altered in some manner beyond my understanding. Though he appeared unconscious, his limbs were possessed of an unnatural rigidity. Examining him, Doctors D— and F— were greatly excited and proclaimed him to be in a "perfect state of mesmeric trance." I touched one arm and withdrew it immediately, offended, despite my rational mind, by the preternatural chill.
Soon afterwards, Dr. F— departed, leaving us to keep vigil over M. Valdemar. Mr. P— agreed to sit first with him, while Dr. D— and I withdrew to the sitting room. I sat in an armchair before the fire and prepared to welcome sleep. But my slumbers were far from easy. I woke at some point in the dead hours and glanced round the bedroom door where I observed P— once more standing over Valdemar's bed. Still half-asleep but nonetheless thinking there might have been some other change in the patient's condition, I moved quietly to within a few feet of P—. He seemed unaware of my presence, his attention concentrated as it was on Valdemar. To my astonishment, I saw that as he moved his right hand over Valdemar's person, the latter's corresponding limb elevated itself and weakly began to mirror the movements of the former.
I was about to speak when I was preempted by a whispered question from Mr. P—, directed not as I first assumed, at myself, but at the prostrate figure on the bed. "Are you asleep, M. Valdemar?" In place of an answer I noticed a tremor in Valdemar's eyelids. As if in sympathy, an involuntary shudder passed through my body.
"Mr. P—," I implored, "what does this mean?"
He scowled and raised a finger to his lips. Then, he concentrated once more on M. Valdemar and repeated his enquiry, this time with a little more urgency.
The pointlessness, even the cruelty of his endeavours alarmed me, and I was about to entreat him further when M. Valdemar's body was seized by a violent convulsion. His eyelids parted to reveal a slit of white and I heard an anguished voice issue from his lips: "Yes;—sleeping. Do not wake me!—let me die!"
My first impulse was to help the man, but P— stilled me with a gesture and asked Valdemar if he was in any pain. Valdemar replied in the negative, but confirmed what seemed apparent—that he was indeed close to death.
Thankfully, Mr. P— withdrew from the bedside, ushering me before him. "I know what you are thinking, Theodore," he said. "How can it be possible for Valdemar to communicate with us in his condition—a condition I would remind you, that you yourself saw fit to question."
Humbled by this admonition, I was unable to articulate the confused thoughts that troubled me. "You are a man of science," he went on. "And you are young—your training compels you to question the unfamiliar. But," and here he lowered his voice as if to emphasise the point, "a science of the irrational circumvents such questions. To ascertain its secrets, one has to start from somewhere else. You understand?"
In truth I did not, but ashamed of my ignorance, I gave a feeble nod. "Good," he said, clapping an arm around my shoulders. "Now, write down what you have observed."
He left the room and I did as he suggested, transcribing as accurately as I was able, given my enervated state of mind, what had passed between Valdemar and himself. Presently, he returned with a glass of brandy, which I drank with more enthusiasm than hitherto. Soon, Dr. D— awoke and joined us in partaking of the beverage and we fell to speculating on Valdemar's fate. When Dr. F— returned at sunrise, we once more descended upon the unfortunate patient to ascertain his present condition.
Leaning close to Valdemar, P— again inquired as to whether he slept. I heard a sharp intake of breath from Dr. F— as Valdemar's frigid reply issued forth—"Still asleep—dying."
"It is true," Dr. D— spoke up. "The temperature, the palsied limbs and the feeble respiration, all indicate an irrevocable condition."
Dr. F— concurred, but P— said, "Perhaps so, but let us wait awhile." Weary, but gripped by a fierce curiosity, I stood ready to record further developments. This time, in response to P—'s repeated questions, M. Valdemar's eyes opened but to my horror I saw only the vitreous whites of the balls and in the next instant the spots of colour that had lingered in his cheeks were snuffed out like a candle's flame in a sudden gust of air. I saw the blood drain from Dr. F—'s face, leaving him as white as the still-living corpse that lay between us. But even then I was ill-prepared for what came next. Valdemar's mouth opened with a terrible clicking noise, as of some monstrous insect; his upper lip slid over his teeth in a ghastly parody of a smile; and a distended, fuliginous lump of flesh crawled out and lolled across his cheek. My heart pounded furiously, a frightened beast yearning for escape. I withdrew a step or two from the bed, as did the others. Surely now, I thought, he is dead.
But no—the blood turned gelid in my veins as I saw his blackened tongue point upwards and begin to twitch, animated by some force that did not extend to the remainder of his body. For a minute or more this terrible sight held us transfixed, until, at its cessation, a voice such as I had never heard before, nor would ever wish to hear again, came, not from within M. Valdemar so much as from some place beyond him. "I have been sleeping," he—it—something, said. "And now—now—I am dead."
At this point I fell into a swoon and have no memory of the intervening moments. When I came to I was informed that both nurses had departed in terror at Valdemar's final utterance. I had every sympathy and would have followed their example had it not been for Mr. P—. He entreated me to remain and pressed another glass of liquor into my hand. I agreed to participate in one final experiment at communicating with Valdemar. In turn, Doctors D—, F— and myself allowed Mr. P— to attempt to foster some form of mesmeric bond between us and the dead man. It was to no avail. Though his tongue remained possessed of some life of its own, it proved impossible to elicit any further communication from the place to which his soul had been consigned.
Mr. P— now arranged for another acquaintance to take charge of the patient, and upon his arrival, we left the building. We returned that afternoon to check on Valdemar but found him unaltered. My suggestion that we attempt to waken him was greeted with horror. "It is evident," P— said, "that the mesmeric process has allowed the suspension of his demise."
"It would appear so," Dr. F— agreed. "To bring him to consciousness now may be to condemn the poor man to oblivion."
"Could that be any worse than what he now endures?" I protested.
"It would be murder," Dr. D— suggested.
"So what will happen to him?"
"We must let nature take its course," Mr. P— said, with a note of finality. Nature! I wanted to protest; what was natural about what had been done to Valdemar? Had I known then what I later knew, I would have stood firm against P—, forced him to bring Valdemar back while he was still capable. But I was weak, lightheaded and troubled by an irrational craving that gnawed at my brain.
I returned to my own apartment, crawled into bed and slept for only a short while before waking to find my body caught in the grip of a debilitating fever. My eyes burned and my skin itched constantly as if beneath the touch of a thousand unseen insects. I heard voices other than my own, though I was alone in the room, and even when I lay motionless on the bed, I was aware of distorted shadows sliding across the walls and ceiling. This lasted two, maybe three days, I cannot say for sure, until finally, overwhelmed by exhaustion, I fell into a sleep that, while not as deep or irrevocable as that which held M. Valdemar, was more profound and prolonged than any I had hitherto experienced.
When I next saw Mr. P— he expressed concern at my appearance. I told him I had succumbed to a fever, brought on, I believed, by what I had witnessed at Valdemar's home. Despite a reluctance to be reminded of those events, I could not deny a morbid curiosity which prompted me to ask as to his current state of mortality. A haunted expression crossed P—'s face as he shook his head and exclaimed, "He lives still!"
"No—how is it possible?"
"I have seen him every day," he said. "There has been no change."
I sighed and shook my head, unwilling to accept the awfulness of Valdemar's fate.
"Theodore, my friend," P— said. "We cannot deny what has happened. Surely you can see that our purpose is to observe, to take a reasoned approach to this phenomenon."
I wanted to berate him for the coldheartedness implicit in his suggestion, but I had not the strength for it. And in truth, I saw that he was right. Thus it was that for the seven months following Valdemar's entrancement, I took to visiting his apartment at regular intervals. I was accompanied always by Mr. P— who, taking full responsibility for Valdemar's condition, attended him on a daily basis. Occasionally, one or other of the doctors would join us, but throughout this time, there was no visible change in Valdemar's state of suspended animation. One morning towards the end of this period, having been unable to visit him for nearly two weeks, I entered his residence and announced my arrival to Griswold, one of the replacement nurses enlisted by Mr. P—.
On receiving no reply, I went straight to Valdemar's chamber expecting to find Griswold there. But Valdemar was alone. Given the immutability of his condition over the previous six months, I was shocked at his altered appearance; his sunken cheeks were unkempt with three or four days growth of hair; the stiffness of his limbs had faded; his tongue had retreated and his eyes were closed, hiding that horrible absence of colour. His respiration though still weak, seemed stronger than before—and this, more than anything, led me to believe that he had emerged from his trance. If this were true, I believed, it would allow him a more peaceful death. I placed a hand on his brow, and felt a feeble warmth."M. Valdemar," I said, "can you hear me?"
His eyelids rolled back, revealing bloodshot orbs full of hunger and pain. His lips trembled and he murmured something I did not catch. I leaned close and bade him speak again. This time, I heard: "Please God—help me! Give it to me or else let me die!"
I was accosted suddenly from behind and received a blow to the head which knocked me unconsciousness. When I awoke I found myself lying on a couch. My head ached violently and when I reached up I felt a dressing on the back of my skull. I became aware of someone else in the room, but, my senses being fogged, I could not say who it was. Shortly thereafter, I slipped back into unconsciousness.
I woke intermittently and found the room either too warm or too cold. On another occasion I woke and heard voices from Valdemar's chamber. I tried to call out but had difficulty in shaping any words. Later, I was aware of some other voice speaking to me, at first reassuring and then seeming to threaten me. Night had fallen when I saw the slight, bearded figure pacing back and forth in a state of some excitement. Sweat glistened on his sallow face, and as I watched he grew even more agitated and began cursing violently, as if conducting a bitter argument with a third party whose presence I was unable to confirm.
When I next awoke I was alone in the room. In the dim light I staggered towards the door but it was further off than I had assumed. I reached the table and saw a case there, a leather valise which was open. Beside it was an empty glass with the dregs of some foul smelling liquid in it. Inside, I found a small square-based bottle containing a yellowish liquid. A label on the bottle identified it as DeQuincey's Mixture, a solution with which I was unfamiliar. Pulling out the stopper I sniffed at the substance and felt a vaguely pleasurable sensation. I returned the bottle to the case and felt the room begin to spin about me. I reached the sofa seconds before I fell.
I do not know how long I remained in this condition, nor can I swear to the veracity of my observations. When I woke again, weak sunlight streamed through the window and Dr. D— stood over me. "You've had quite a turn," he said. "Had it not been for your friend, God alone knows what might have become of you."
"What happened?" I managed to say.
"Theodore! You are recovered?" It was Mr. P—. He rushed to my side and clasped my arms. He looked somewhat dishevelled and spoke in an agitated manner such that I could barely understand a word. I looked imploringly at the doctor.
"A terrible state of affairs," the latter said. "Griswold has betrayed our trust."
"The scoundrel was in the process of relieving M. Valdemar of his possessions when you must have disturbed him. It seems he assaulted you but luckily, P— arrived before he was able to carry off Valdemar's valuables. Though he has made good his escape, a warrant has been issued for his arrest. It is only a matter of time."
I looked to P— for confirmation and saw him merely nod, as if distracted. Despite my confusion, I ascertained that he was keeping some other matter from me. "What is it?" I asked. "Tell me!"
"Well—" Dr. D— began.
"It's Valdemar," P— said. "We have resolved to make an attempt at wakening him."
"But surely he has already woken?"
A half-smile crossed P—'s lips. "There has been a change, but he remains entranced."
At this point Dr. F— arrived and we removed to Valdemar's chamber where Mr. P— began to make the customary passes over his still form. To my consternation I noticed that his body had returned to its former state of icy rigidity. Initially, P—'s attempts at reanimation had no discernible impact, but after a while, Valdemar's eyes opened and his irises became partially visible, followed moments later by a sulphurous and foul-smelling liquid which flowed out from beneath the lids.
Mr. P— quickly asked him what he felt or what his wishes were, which prompted a violent quivering of Valdemar's tongue and that same unspeakable voice which had so shocked me previously.
"For God's sake! - give it to me now or let me die before they come again!"
We were greatly disturbed at this outburst and none seemed to know what to do. Then P— resumed his passes in a futile attempt to calm the patient. It was apparent to me that this was merely prolonging Valdemar's suffering and unable to bear it any longer I seized P— and pleaded with him to put an end to it. He seemed on the verge of panic, unwilling to proceed, but when he looked at the faces of the two doctors, he gave a slight nod and I released him. As he made hurried gestures over Valdemar, the latter's body spasmed, his face contorted, and blood and ichor began flowing profusely from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. In seconds, the bedsheets were awash with blood and as we watched in horror, a final, hideous scream tore from his throat and then M. Valdemar was still.
Dr. F— pronounced him dead and on examining the body, he commented on the profound wasting of flesh and muscle that the patient had suffered in his final few weeks. In truth there remained little enough of Valdemar to require the use of a coffin.
Although the fate of M. Valdemar was the cause of much speculation in the months following his demise, by the year's end it had faded from the public consciousness. Despite my failure to come up with a satisfactory explanation for his death and the unpleasant memories that still, on occasion, troubled me, I returned to my medical studies, firmly resolved to counter superstition and ignorance through reason. At the same time I withdrew from Mr. P—'s society, a task made easier by his increasing literary fame and his removal, along with his young wife, to New York some four years after the events described.
I cannot say what prompted Mr. P— to rekindle the flames of controversy by publishing the erroneously titled "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," other than that perhaps he assumed his fame granted him exemption from truth. Indeed, the story would not have come to my attention had it not been for a colleague who knew that I had once been acquainted with the author. As I intimated at the outset, it was this fictionalised version of events that prompted me to return to my memoranda in order to write a true account of Valdemar's fate. Studying my record for the first time in nearly five years I was struck by my youthful naivete; things which I had hitherto ignored or dismissed as trivial, now assumed an importance that helped me see through P—'s duplicity; incidents which at the time had seemed inexplicable, now, with the benefit of hindsight, were susceptible to rational scrutiny. Not the least of those questions which had puzzled me, was the diagnosis put forward by Doctors D— and F— as to Valdemar's condition. Upon investigation, I discovered that neither was held in quite the high regard I had been led to believe. Indeed, Dr. F—'s license to practise medicine had been removed less than six months after the death of M. Valdemar, following the misdiagnosis of a case of typhus which led to an outbreak of the disease in the poorer part of the city. Both doctors were also known to have been over-liberal in their prescription of certain substances to patients whose conditions did not warrant their use but whose financial means permitted them to indulge their cravings.
Having ascertained that Mr. P— was one such person, it took no great leap of imagination to guess at the nature of the mysterious solution I had found in his case. Subsequent research revealed DeQuincey's Mixture as a compound of alcohol and opium, imported from England. Although this was a crucial discovery, linking as it did P—'s erratic behaviour with my own subsequent willingness to accept what I knew to be impossible, it was not until I reread the last few pages of my memoranda that I was able to make the final connection. In the course of my own medical practise I had had occasion to witness the effects of an abrupt cessation of opium ingestion on those who had become dependent on it. Recalling the need in Valdemar's eyes I recognised it as that same awful need I had witnessed in the eyes of those abandoned souls housed in the cells of the city's insane asylum.
Incensed at Mr. P—'s machinations and by my own inability to see through them, I wrote to him, accusing him of having caused the death of M. Valdemar for his own, entirely egotistical ends. I charged him of complicity with the Doctors in misdiagnosing Valdemar's condition in order to ensure his willing co-operation in an inhuman experiment. Lacking in confidence, I had let myself be persuaded that his illness was more serious than was in fact the case. For reasons I was unsure of, but which I suspected were connected to P—'s initial failure to mesmerise Valdemar, he had caused the latter to ingest some quantity of DeQuincey's Mixture, which gave him the appearance of being mesmerised, while in fact he had succumbed to nothing more mysterious than a narcotic stupor.
I further accused P— of having secreted some few drops of this opium tincture into the brandy I had drank on several occasions, in order that my critical faculties might be dulled. Thus assured of my compliance, I wrote, the experiment had proceeded. But what I could not understand, was why it had been prolonged over such an extended period. And why, having started to wean Valdemar off the drug, had he ceased in this course? Even when I had discovered Valdemar alone, there was a chance that he might have made a full recovery. Only two possibilities occurred to me: that P— had accidentally allowed Valdemar's addiction to become so debilitating such that his condition became chronic and irreversible; or, that in pursuit of his own arcane interests, he had knowingly allowed Valdemar to die. In the process he had involved me in his corruption, something of which I might have remained unaware but for his need to offer his interpretation of the case to the public, an interpretation composed of lies dressed up as "facts."
Having seen his distorted version of the truth, I informed P—, I had been compelled to write my own account of the case, one which was not only at odds with his published interpretation, but one whose veracity I was willing to testify to in a court of law. My account was near to completion, I warned him, and I was seeking a publisher for it. I posted the letter to an address in New York and began the final revisions to my text.
One evening, less than two weeks later, I returned to my apartment after a trying day at the City Infirmary. After dinner, the housekeeper informed me there was a gentleman wishing to speak to me on a matter of some urgency. Despite my weariness, I told her to bring the fellow in. When he entered my study, I did not immediately recognise P—, for he had changed greatly in the few years since I had last set eyes upon him. His clothes were shabby and he seemed shrunken, as if some internal force had drawn him too much into himself. His eyes flitted nervously about the room before fixing on me and revealing something of the suspicions of one who has battled too much against the world.
"Theodore," he said. "How good of you to see me."
I tried to maintain a reserved manner and bade him be seated in an armchair before the fireplace. He lowered himself slowly into it and I detected a slight tremor in his limbs. I quelled a stir of pity and said, "You have come in response to my letter?"
He sat forward, stretching his hands towards the fire. "Yes - I had intended to write but I felt that you would not believe me unless I came in person."
"You should have spared yourself the journey," I said, harshly. "I am negotiating with a Mr William Burton for the publication of my account in a forthcoming issue of The Gentleman's Magazine."
He watched the flames awhile in silence, his mind seemingly elsewhere. When, finally, he leaned back and spoke, he alluded to our past friendship before saying, "Please, grant me some of the trust you once did and believe what I am about to tell you."
"How can I?" I said. "You duped me, roped me into an experiment in which I would never have participated had I known the truth. To make matters worse, you compromise my reputation as a man of science by publishing your damn fiction."
"I should have taken more care to disguise your identity," he admitted.
"What possible motivation did you have for writing it?"
He glanced at me, almost furtively, and said, "I will come to that."
"You had better," I said, curtly.
"I accepted the doctors' opinion of Valdemar's condition in good faith. If I hadn't, I would never have proceeded with the experiment. Yes, you were right to say in your letter that self interest caused me to administer the opium tincture after the failure of my initial attempt at mesmerising him, but I also believed it would alleviate his suffering."
"You were not qualified to make such a decision."
"You said that you believe my subsequent mesmerisation of Valdemar was a sham," he went on, ignoring my interjection. "But on the contrary the drug had the effect of countering his unconscious resistance to entrancement. What you see now as narcosis, was a more profound case of mesmerism than any I had previously induced in a subject. But having succeeded, it was only when I attempted to draw him out that I discovered how distant was his removal from the material world. Failing to bring him back to consciousness, it was not until the following day that I noticed a slight change in his condition, one that prompted me to believe that he had returned to his normal self.
"Seeing that the rigidity which had taken hold of Valdemar's body had lessened, I listened a while to his respiration. As I did so, I heard a voice full of fear and pain, begging me to save him from some nameless threat. Panicked, I administered another dose of opium and within seconds he had once again become insensible."
P—'s eyes glistened wetly as he spoke and it seemed to me that he was speaking as much for his own benefit as for mine. Despite my disbelief, I felt pity for him, for it was obvious that the man was close to some kind of breakdown. This did not surprise me, for I remembered well his fondness for alcohol, despite his intolerance to it. And there remained the question as to his own use of opiates.
"I swear to you, Theodore," he continued, "I am in no doubt that when Valdemar spoke to me, it was from some other dimension, apart from our own reality. It was only because I was convinced death was imminent, and to prevent his further agony, that I continued to administer the drug. Yet when, after a week or more, he still clung to life, I resolved to wean him from it, believing that as the narcotic effect wore off, so he would return to a state of true consciousness."
"Why did you not persist in this course?"
He leaned forward, shoulders hunched over his chest. "The longer I withheld the opium, the more disturbed he became. At no point did he emerge from the trance, yet without the shielding power of the drug, he was subjected to all manner of torment, the nature of which I could only guess at. Such was the horror he witnessed in that place, he begged me to either kill him, or give him that which would nullify his pain. After forty-eight hours I relented and began once more to administer regular doses of opium."
Hearing him speak thus, I could not help but recall the awful pleading tone in Valdemar's voice when he had spoken to me immediately before I was assaulted. But it was P—'s next words that caused me to feel the clutch of ice-cold fingers on my spine: "I believe that what Valdemar saw in his mesmerised state, was a glimpse of Hell."
I felt the first stirrings of an old, familiar dread and in an effort to counter it I told myself that this was no more than superstitious speculation, the result of delirium on P—'s part. "How can you expect me to—" I began, but he cut me off.
"Believe!" he said. "You must. For all our sakes. Please, Theodore, let me finish." The intensity of his voice and the gaze which he now turned upon me kept me silent.
"Towards the end I became sick at heart but I was at a loss as to how to end it without killing Valdemar. At this time I succumbed to a fever and was unable to attend him for some days. As I did not wholly trust Griswold, I had left no instructions with him to administer the opium. When I returned and found you there, I saw that you had witnessed the torments to which Valdemar was subjected without benefit of the drug. In my still enervated state of mind I imagined you would misinterpret his condition and do something to hasten his death. And so I acted on the spur of the moment and knocked you unconscious. Forgive me, but I believed I was saving his life. Over the next two days, I tried to discover some method of bringing him, unharmed, out of the trance. By the time you had recovered, I had resolved on the only course of action that lay open to me—to withhold the drug and attempt to waken him before the worst effects of withdrawal could act upon his system. As you saw, I succeeded in ending his mesmerisation, but not with the desired effect. I suspected that it would kill him, but that it would reduce him physically to such a state, I had had no inkling."
It was too much—whether prompted by a refusal to countenance such ravings or because I saw in P—'s revised tale little more than a wild attempt at self-justification, I cannot say, but I determined to close my mind to him. I got up from my seat and said, "Enough sir!—you do yourself no credit with such phantasies."
He forced himself to stand and placed a hand on my shoulder. "I do not ask you for absolution, Theodore - it is not yours to give. All I would seek is your belief that although my actions led to Valdemar's death, I never wished that awful fate on him. As regards my publishing the tale, in writing it, I was attempting to exorcise those demons which have haunted me since his death. That I have failed to do so should not concern you. Let us agree that it is no more than I deserve."
I followed him out into the hallway, relieved that it was over. I opened the front door and waited for him to step out into the street. But he hesitated, as if remembering something else. "There is another reason I wrote the story," he said. "One that might cause you to reconsider your intention to make public your version of events."
"What would that be?"
"To serve as a warning to others who might attempt something of the same nature. You believe that all mysteries, no matter how irrational will yield their secrets if subjected to reasoned scrutiny. But believe me, not all can be understood by such means, and the fate of M. Valdemar is one such case." With that he crossed the threshold and walked away into the night. We never spoke again.
As it was now close to Christmas and Mr. Burton had given me until the end of January to hand in my manuscript, I put it aside to enjoy the season's festivities. The Chief Surgeon at the City Infirmary was a Dr. Hawthorne and I had received an invitation to dine at his home on Christmas Day. I was much taken with the prospect as it would give me the opportunity to become better acquainted with his only daughter, Frances, a handsome young woman of sixteen years. I had been introduced to her on one occasion, when she had accompanied her father to the infirmary in order, she had confided, to make a study of the conditions in a modern hospital. I must confess that I had it in mind to make an impression on Frances, and to aid my cause I went so far as to purchase a new suit on Christmas Eve.
Returning to my apartment that evening, I found a letter waiting for me. I tore open the envelope distractedly and saw it was from P—. Angered at his persistence, I put it to one side and dealt with what I considered to be more pressing correspondence. I had still not read the damn thing when I set out for Dr Hawthorne's residence on the following morning. Indeed, such was the charm and beauty of Miss Hawthorne, not to mention the favour she displayed towards me, that I had quite forgotten P— and his letter until I arrived home well past midnight and saw it lying on my desk, a bitter summons from the past. Reluctantly, I picked it up and read thus:
My Dear Theodore,
Please, forget all that I have told you. God forgive me! but none of it matters now. Whilst seeking to warn you in order to solicit your silence, I have failed utterly to heed my own advice. It seems I have become immune to any effect promulgated by the sufferings of M. Valdemar. It is terrible what actions the fear of loss can provoke, but our desire to hold on to those dear to us, oft times forces us to do that which we know full well to be misguided. I have subjected another to a mesmeric trance! She was—is—close to death and I sought to postpone the inevitable by inducing in her a trance which would not only suspend her pain, but which I hoped would give her physician time to find some new remedy for her illness. In doing so I fear I have consigned her to the same fate as Valdemar—that her soul, caught inside that trance, is assailed by those same visions and torments of Hell. I know not what to do unless it be to bring her out now, before she is too far gone. But my fear is—No! I cannot bring myself to write the words. I am in despair and can write no more. I ask nothing further of you.
I read the letter over again, greatly troubled. On retiring I found myself unable to sleep, as my mind attempted to make sense of what P— had said. Was this another ruse to persuade me to desist in the publication of my account of the case, or was he finally speaking the truth? Given what he had said to me just two weeks previously, not to mention the manner in which he had spoken, it seemed incomprehensible that he would resort to mesmerism after all this time. Unless of course—as instinct whispered was the case—this was some new deceit. It was impossible for me to separate truth from falsehood. Eventually, some time before dawn, I fell into a fitful sleep and woke late in the morning, more troubled than the night before.
Reluctantly, I decided to visit P— in New York as soon as was practicably possible. I had no clear notion of what I would do when I confronted him, yet I felt that by looking into his eyes I would know whether he had spoken the truth. But my plans were put to one side by the arrival of a summons from Dr. Hawthorne, requesting the pleasure of my company that evening at a recital to be given by a young poet from Long Island. Knowing that Frances would also be present, I replied that I would be delighted to attend.
Thus it was that the confusion and sense of urgency which P—'s letter had provoked, gradually came to assume less prominence in my thoughts. In truth, over the next few weeks, what little spare time I had was devoted to thoughts of Frances and how our relationship might develop. By the time I heard from an irate Mr. Burton at the end of January, I realised that the anger I had felt towards Mr. P— had all but dissipated. It was, I decided, time to let go of the past. I could not change what had happened, I could not bring Valdemar back. If P— still had demons to wrestle with, then they were demons of his own making. I would pursue him no further.
Frances and I were married in Spring of the following year and moved into furnished apartments within walking distance of the Infirmary. As time passed and I grew accustomed to my new domestic arrangements, preoccupation both with Frances and work allowed certain memories to fade and retreat to distant corners of my mind. Such did things proceed for a little over a year, until I received an urgent summons from Dr. J.J. Moran of Baltimore, requesting my presence at the Washington College Hospital. I took the train to Baltimore early on the morning of Sunday, October the seventh, and arrived at the hospital at noon.
I was shown to Moran's office, and after he had greeted me and bade me take a seat, he said, "I believe you are a friend of a Mr. P— the author, formerly of Philadelphia?"
I was surprised at hearing P—'s name but managed not to show it. "We were once acquainted."
Moran nodded slowly, as if too vigorous a movement might precipitate some injury to himself. He glanced at some papers placed on his desk, before looking towards me and asking if I believed in the life hereafter.
"Is there a connection between your theological curiosity and my presence here?" I said, irritably, for I was fatigued after my journey. "And what has either to do with Mr. P—?"
"I beg you, indulge me," Moran said.
Curious, despite my irritation, I said, "I have long confined my faith to that which can be empirically demonstrated."
"Have you ever been confronted with such a demonstration?"
I was about to laugh at the suggestion when a sudden chill took root in my mind. Momentarily, I was thrown into a state of uncertainty and was unable to answer his question. Ascertaining my confusion, Moran came out from behind his desk. "Forgive me, Dr L-l,," he said. "I see that you have made some connection. I hope I have not unduly alarmed you."
"No," I lied.
He took my arm and helped me stand. "Please," he said. "There is something you should see."
We ascended to the second floor, walked along a narrow corridor and hence into a small but tidy room. He stood aside and gestured towards the bed, on which lay an unmoving figure. As I approached he drew open the curtains and the light revealed to me the face of Mr. P—. From the set of his features, I saw that his passing had not been easy. His mouth was fixed in a rictus of agony and his cheeks had sunk such as to leave deep hollows in the sides his face. The tongue, blackened and protruding, summoned forth a terror from that corner of my mind to which it had receded since I had put aside my account of M. Valdemar's death. Before I could prevent him, Moran had pulled back the sheet which covered P—'s body. The sight of his emaciated frame shocked me. It was as if I had been transported back nearly ten years and was once more standing over Valdemar's inwardly collapsed body. "When?" I managed to say.
"He was found four days ago," Moran said, averting his gaze from the corpse. "Stretched unconscious across a plank outside a saloon on Lombard Street."
"What happened to him?"
"He got off the Richmond train nine days ago, feverish and probably drunk. It seems he called to the house of a Dr. Brooks, only to find Brooks was out. The next five days are a mystery on which I thought you might be able to shed some light."
"What do you mean?"
"I have been unable to trace anyone who saw or heard of his whereabouts during that period. It is as if he disappeared off the face of the earth. Four days ago, he was brought here by a friend of his, a Dr. Snodgrass. He was called to the saloon to attend Mr. P— who, it was supposed, was insensible from alcohol."
"Yes, and indeed that was what I first believed. He displayed the usual symptoms—tremors, delirium—before becoming comatose for a period of some ten hours. There followed more ravings before, late on Friday morning, he became calm."
"You spoke with him?"
"Yes, though what he had to say struck me at first, as insensible as his semi-conscious ravings." The doctor hesitated, as if unsure how to proceed. "And yet—"
"Yes?" I prompted him, unable to contain my agitation.
He suggested we retire to his office. "No," I insisted. "I must hear it in his presence."
"The man is dead," Moran said, seemingly troubled at my excitement.
"Tell me," I hissed through clenched teeth.
"Sir, I beg you, control yourself," he said.
With an effort of will I composed myself, but determined to remain in the room. "Yes, of course, but please, continue—something caused you to question the nature of his illness?"
"There was no doubt as to his alcoholism," Moran went on. "Nor indeed was there any doubt as to the nature of the other substance he had taken."
"What other substance?"
"A small bottle was found in his case. A solution called DeQuincey's Mixture, which, upon analysis, proved to be a tincture of alcohol and opium."
I gripped the bedrail to prevent my arms from shaking. It seemed that P—'s habits had finally got the better of him.
"Of course," Moran continued, "I made the same diagnosis which I see you have now formed—a fatal combination of alcohol and opium ingestion."
"Yes," I said, dazed.
"Perhaps, Dr. L-l, but even so, doubts remain."
"In those few hours of calm we talked, and though his words seemed tainted with madness, his tone, on the contrary, was lucid. It was only after he had succumbed to the prolonged agonies of death that I thought anew on what he had said, and it is these musings which have prompted my doubts."
The room was deathly still; even the sunlight that streamed through the window was robbed of its vitality. "Tell me," I said, my voice not much above a whisper.
"I believe my diagnosis to be correct," Moran said, "but I am inclined also to believe the alcohol and opium use to have been symptomatic of some far greater malaise."
My heart pounded furiously and I feared to speak lest I should be unable to prevent myself from telling Moran to cease his speculations—speculations which I needed to hear.
"It is not uncommon for those wanting of will to seek refuge from life's travails in such substances, yes?" He glanced at me but did not wait for an answer. "From what I have learned of P—, I doubt he lacked such will or determination. He told me that what he was running from was unconnected with the failures he had encountered in this existence. I believe he was attempting to obliterate the memories of events he had witnessed in some other physical and temporal plane."
A debilitating numbness spread through me as Moran spoke of the visions of absolute horror and madness related by Mr. P—. I knew that these were the same visions that had afflicted Valdemar. The only logical conclusion was that P— had finally found the courage to attempt some form of self-mesmerisation in an attempt to confront the demons he had inadvertently summoned into being.
"Dr. L-l," Moran said, "are you all right?"
"Yes," I cried, unable to tear my gaze from P—'s lifeless form.
"And what of do you make of what I have told you?"
For some moments I was silent. In truth I did not know what to say. At the very least Moran deserved to have his speculations confirmed. Instead, I told him I was tired after my journey and that the news of P—'s death had come as a great shock.
"Of course, my dear fellow, I should have realised. I will arrange lodgings for you."
"No need," I told him, formulating another lie. "I have already taken a room close by. I'll come back tomorrow and we will discuss this further."
"Yes," he said. "With your assistance, I believe we can unravel this mystery."
I found a boarding house some distance from the hospital and after a light meal I retired for the evening. Despite my fatigue, my mind wrestled with thoughts of P— and M. Valdemar. After some hours, I resolved to tell Moran everything, confirm his suspicions that there was more to P—'s death than could be rationally explained. Only then, I believed, would I be granted some measure of peace. For now though, sleep remained a remote prospect, so I rose, got dressed and went outside. It was not long past midnight and a thin, wintry mist was falling over the city like a shroud of confusion.
I wandered aimlessly, trying to shape my thoughts in order that Moran would understand me and not think me a lunatic. After nearly an hour, and fearing myself lost, I stopped to get my bearings. Dim, watery light from the gas lamp on the corner illumined a sign that told me I was on Lombard Street. How was it possible that I had come to be there? I asked myself, seeking conscious intent where none existed. I walked along the street, past saloons and gaming houses, the mist now more of a fine, persistent drizzle. A rough-looking woman accosted me and plied me with lewd suggestions. I crossed the street to get away from her and saw the place I had unwittingly come to find.
Ryan's Saloon was filled to overflowing, even at that unearthly hour. Though I was uncomfortable in that place, I knew I could not leave without making an attempt to fill the gaps in P—'s last days. I went to the counter and caught the attention of the saloon-keeper. "A man was found unconscious outside of here four days ago—you recall the incident?"
He grinned, his gin-smelling breath wafting over me. "Lotsa fellas been found on their back after a few jars," he said. "Can't remember 'em all."
"He was a slight fellow, very ill. He was taken away by a Dr. Snodgrass."
"Friend a yours, was he? Mebbe you need another friend for the night?"
"He's dead," I said, bluntly.
"Ah well, can't help you then, less you'd be wanting a drink?"
I ordered a brandy and sat at an empty table towards the rear of the saloon. I began to brood on the foolishness of seeking to discover something of those five missing days, given that Moran, who knew the city better than I, had been unable to learn anything. Such introspection has a wearying effect on the soul and it was in such a mood that I sat and drank alone for the best part of two hours.
A quiet, yet insistent voice drew me out of my reverie. I looked up and saw that the saloon had emptied somewhat. A young woman—not much more than a girl, really—stood beside my table. Her eyes were large and dark, her skin unnaturally pale. Beneath it, I could see the beauty that—in spite of her youth—disease, or life itself, had robbed her of.
"I'm sorry," I said, not unkindly, "but I have no desire for company."
She dabbed at her mouth with a stained handkerchief and threw an anxious glance towards the door. Taking pity on her, I bade her excuse my manners and asked her to sit. She did so, looked once more towards the street, then turned her mournful gaze on me.
"You are waiting for someone?" I asked her.
"Yes," she said. "But he does not come."
Thinking she was awaiting a lover, I smiled and told her I was sure he would arrive soon. She lowered her head and told me that he was already long overdue.
"How long have you been waiting?"
She did not answer me, but instead began to weep. Somewhat taken aback, I wondered if her illness was more than physical, if perhaps she had been driven to distraction through abandonment. Such things were not unknown. She was struck suddenly, with a fit of coughing. Her entire body shook with the violence of it and I put an arm around her back until it ceased. Seeing the beads of sweat that gleamed on her forehead, as well as the fresh spots of blood that stained her kerchief, I said, "You are sick, Miss, you should go home."
She gave me an anguished look and her eyes hinted at knowledge beyond her years. "I have no home without him."
"He is not worthy of you," I said, firmly. "To abandon you this way."
"No," she said. "It is I who abandoned him."
"And yet you wait for him still?"
"And he has not come."
"No, but still I must wait."
"This is foolish," I said, feeling a sudden sense of disquiet. "What can you possibly owe any man who would treat you this way?"
"You would equate love with debt?"
"No—all I am trying to do is understand."
"I have seen them again," she said, lowering her voice. "Since I came here to wait for him this past week. I fear they have him now."
Her hands shook on the table's surface. "If they did not, he would be here."
A queer thought wormed its way into my brain. "This man you wait for—how did you come to know his intention?"
"What good is it to drag the past out into the light?" she said, her voice brittle with despair. "We do not seek the truth, we hide from it."
"What good does it do us to conceal the truth?"
She stole another furtive glance towards the street. "You can say for certain that you know the truth?"
"No," I admitted. "But the man you speak of, he—"
She shook her head, a gesture of finality. "Please, you do not want to see."
"How can you know what I want?"
"Because they would have you too."
"They?" The strange unease I felt became a cold dread that clawed at my heart.
"Those who dwell in... the margins, the spaces between. I have been there, sir, I do not want to return." She rose from her seat. "I must go now, before—"
"Wait," I pleaded. "Tell me what you know."
"Let the world think what it will," she said, moving away. "The tale tells itself."
"Who are you?" I called out.
She looked back from the doorway and her lips shaped a single word. Then she was gone. I hurried after her but found only a brutal rain pounding Lombard Street as if to cleanse the stench of ruination from its bones.
I went back inside and found the saloon-keeper talking with a drunken slattern at the counter. I asked him if he knew the young woman who had just left.
"Young woman, is it," said the slattern. "Ain't I young enough for ya?"
"Sure you are, Kitty," the man laughed. "Youngest cuntlet in this banging-shop."
Angered by his manner, I grabbed him by the collar. "Listen, damn you. I'm not interested in her. I want to know about the girl I was just talking with."
He broke free of my grip, reached under the counter and brought up a cudgel, which he jabbed towards me. "Best you leave now," he said, all trace of humour gone from his voice. "I won't be abused in my own place."
I stepped back from the counter, raising my hands in a placatory gesture. "Please," I said. "I have to know who she is."
Perhaps he took pity on me, for he lowered the cudgel and said, "Wasn't no piece with you all night."
I left the bar and hurried away from Lombard Street in the driving rain. I wandered for some hours, tormented with thoughts of the young woman, of the fragility of life and the closeness of death. Was there an interim space between the two? A margin in which one was neither alive nor dead and in which dwelled other beings, envious of our ways? Upon reaching the boarding house and retiring again to bed, I told myself that such a place could not be. And yet I felt the light of reason dim a little inside my soul.
I returned to Moran's office at midday. He asked how I was feeling, but I saw that his inquiry was mere politeness and that he was impatient to discover my thoughts. Once I was seated, he asked what conclusions I had come to on the mystery of P—'s death.
I forced a smile, the falsity of which I felt sure he would see. "A sorry tale indeed. It would appear that even in the grip of death, Mr. P— could not bring himself to abandon his powers of invention."
Moran looked perplexed. "Yes, of course—he was noted for his imagination. But you would agree that there is more to this matter than is at first apparent?"
I ignored this question and asked one of my own. "When did he die?"
"Yesterday morning, a little after five. His last words were, 'Lord help my poor soul.'"
I pondered this for a moment, attempting to disguise my true emotions from Moran. "It seems that at the end, he sought a reconciliation with God."
"Perhaps," Moran said, sounding unconvinced. "I had hoped that you might enlighten me as to the meaning of what he told me before his death."
"I am sorry, Dr. Moran, but I believe you were correct in your initial diagnosis. Death from alcohol and opium abuse, preceded it seems, by insanity. A sad end for one so talented."
"But yesterday—you seemed to suspect something more?"
"That was yesterday, sir—there is no telling what flights of fancy might be provoked by fatigue or grief."
A spark of anger or frustration flashed behind Moran's eyes. "You're saying that you have nothing more to tell me?"
"I am sorry, Doctor." I rose and extended a hand across his desk. "I must be going."
He gripped it violently and asked me to reconsider. I told him I was unable to shed further light on the matter, thanked him for his concern and went to the door.
"Wait," he called after me. I hesitated and heard him say, "You really think you will be able to forget?"
I made no answer but hurried away, not wanting to lie to him again.
P— was buried the next day, but I left before the funeral. I was anxious to return to Philadelphia, to Frances and the child she carried in her womb. The first task I performed upon my return was to destroy the manuscript of my account of the case of M. Valdemar. I had not looked at it in two years, nor did I read it then. Instead, as I watched the flames consume my words, I imagined that in repaying this unsuspected debt, I would in time be granted the balm of forgetting.
In the fourteen years that have passed since those concluding events, I have watched my daughter, Virginia, grow near to the first blooming of womanhood, and in that time also, I have heard now and again of Mr. P—. Though his fame has waned somewhat among the general populace, he is much admired in literary circles, particularly in Europe, where they appear to have a peculiar fondness for the macabre and pathological. Perhaps they know more than we are prepared to admit. For myself, I do not seek out his tales. Whatever excitement or frisson of fear they may impart to readers, I have attempted to avoid. In this I have failed, for all through these long years, in place of his fictions, I am haunted by those truths I have never disclosed. Hence this manuscript, which, once complete, I do not intend to be read. How soon that will be I cannot say.
It is of no consequence, I tell myself—for I no longer desire to learn the answers to those questions which fear leaves unspoken. I put these pages aside, once more postponing the end. Instead I watch Virginia as she moves through life in blissful ignorance, as her beauty gives pleasure to all who come into contact with her. And I try not to let my eyes linger too long on the shadows—or the spaces in between.