The well-heeled couple strolling arm and arm discussing the upcoming presidential race had already agreed that General Zachary Taylor would be elected the new president. All the newspapers were extolling the general’s triumphant exploits during the Mexican War, resulting in the annexation of a great swath of land connecting the territory of Texas with distant California. They agreed it was god’s will.
On one of those humid afternoons familiar to those who live in the South, the gracious lady was cooling herself with a silk fan when she stopped abruptly. In the most prosperous neighborhood in all of Richmond City, Virginia, a derelict was blatantly occupying a park bench reserved for her kind alone.
“Dear,” the gentlewoman whispered, elbowing her husband. “It’s preposterous what license these people take. We cannot allow these laggards to invade our community. Already they roam the city at will. Wave him away, will you dear?”
The wastrel, clad in a dusty wool overcoat, sat cupping his rather large head. “Let us leave it to the police, shall we, dear?” the elderly gentleman answered.
“I’d rather not have to walk past him on our return. It’s such a glorious afternoon, after all. Now please get rid of him.”
Patting her arm, adjusting his broad-brimmed hat, he reluctantly started toward the sluggard. Hearing approaching footsteps, Edgar Poe slowly raised his head. Nonplussed, the gentleman stopped short. He recognized the poet. Anyone who was someone would have. Although Poe had many failings, he was a famous son of Richmond. Street etiquette dictated that the gentleman should find at least a few courteous words to speak to the poet. Fingering the brim of his hat, he retreated to his wife for advice.
When Edgar looked up, he recognized the gentleman as well. Or rather, he saw right through the gentleman’s disguise. He had half-expected him. Earlier that day he had stumbled upon a shoeblack who as a slave boy had tended the garden at the house of Edgar’s stepfather, John Allan, when Edgar himself was a boy.
The shoeblack’s name was Ethan, and although Edgar was near forty, Ethan had not aged a day. The two had become compatriots of sorts back then—Ethan as well as his sister Rebecca, who helped with the daily housekeeping.
Edgar’s stepfather, a wealthy merchant, owned a number of plantations. During his youth Edgar had overheard stories from slaves working around his house about spirits and legends of the afterlife. After much prodding, Ethan had agreed to take Edgar to a slave cemetery in a plantation located in a marshy area unsuitable for plowing. Having heard the folktales about the undead who haunted the cemetery, the two boys wandered the field scattered with stones painted with curious markings. Asked about the images. Ethan explained they were emblematic of the persons who lay buried below. He said he was raised to believe the dead never died. They lived on as spirits, both good and bad. Above them stood a live oak many centuries old. Tremendously thick, it had a severed limb just far enough off the ground to serve as a natural sling for a rope when the need arose. One day they sneaked to the field and witnessed a hanging there. As he choked, a slim man, with canvas pants barely covering his knees, raised his feet as though climbing a ladder. Later Ethan showed Edgar his headstone: a perfectly round river rock with two feet climbing an invisible stairway.
As the fine gentleman retreated toward his companion, Edgar laughed. The man’s wide-brimmed hat was a clever attempt to conceal himself, but Edgar instantly recognized the crescent-shaped scar on his jaw that marked him as the overseer who decades earlier had directed his stepfather’s huge plantations. Here he was, smiling at Edgar. A man who had always greeted Edgar only perfunctorily was now pretending welcome—a collision of improbability, first Ethan and now the overseer, Edgar thought with amusement.
He was relieved when the overseer’s companion took his elbow and steered him off the way they had come. Edgar had much to do. He was scheduled to depart early the following morning on a ferry bound for Baltimore City to meet with his publisher. He had finished a novel that would finally make him wealthy. But first he had to secure passage and had only five dollars in his billfold. All the money to his name.
But he knew where to get some more money. He’d recently become engaged to a childhood sweetheart who happened to be one of the wealthiest widows in Richmond. His troth was more a hedge than anything. A pity she had become such a homely creature. How had Byron put it? Beauty, the fatal gift.
At least he thought they would marry. There was a slight problem. Following a well-attended reading of his famous essay “L’art pour l’art” a week before, he’d been seen walking away in the company of a lovely young girl. The widow had gotten word of it and had scheduled a dinner that very evening, intent on hearing his explanation. Edgar knew he would have to be persuasive.
It was not the first time. He had been in such straits before. A year earlier it was a rich socialite from New England, who, like many of his female admirers, had been taken in during a recitation of his famous poem “The Raven.” There were always a few who afterward asked to speak privately with him. She invited him to a grand mansion, where that night he conducted a thunderous séance—then a daily preoccupation of the coterie of the wealthy class—where hands were held and knees touched. By late summer there was talk of an engagement, but unfortunately Edgar had begun drinking again, and after his antics, her wealthy father had done some minor probing and spirited his young daughter off to the Continent.
Left penniless, Edgar had come home to Richmond and, reacquainting himself with his childhood sweetheart, had at her urging joined the Temperance Movement. It was the least he could do: a pledge of sobriety in return for affluence.
On top of it all, he was being followed. The publishing world had always been envious of his intellect. Word had gotten out that he had completed a novel written in the Dickensian style—a disgusting enterprise he had suffered through, but one he was sure the public would hail, one that would bring him fortune. There were those who wished to prevent this, those who would do what needed doing to see that his story was never published—the very reason he kept his story in a leather satchel he carried with him at all times.
After the handsome couple was out of sight, Edgar left the park bench and walked back to his room in a cheap boarding house. Certain that miscreants were eyeing the entrance, he slipped in through the back door. The dimly lit corridor stank of mildew. His room on the top floor cost half as much as a room at ground level but proved a grueling climb. With the rickety stairway loudly announcing his timid progress, he had nearly reached the top landing when he heard a latch drop, followed by the sound of muffled feet. His pursuers knew nothing of his prehensile intellect. Instantly he knew they had clad their feet in rags. Hired by jealous editors, the pariah Emerson or the fool Coleridge sometimes openly walked into taverns and, feigning companionship, plied him with rounds of drink while querying him about his latest work. Gripping the thin handrail, he leaned over. “Begone serpents!” Edgar cried. “If only I held in my hand Jeremiah’s almond branch I’d slay you all!”
The ruddy-faced hotel clerk had heard Edgar walk in the back door and now stood at the bottom of the stairs. “It’s only me, Mr. Poe,” he shouted up the stairs while touching the bowler hat perched tightly on his round head. “I’m here to report that I’ve done as you asked. No strangers entered our door today.”
Edgar knew better. He completed his climb and pushed inside the room sparsely decorated with a mule-hair mattress, washstand, and single olivewood chair. It was hot, and he quickly shed his old wool coat. Much too thick to be worn on such a warm day, but he had had no choice. No gentleman of his stature could be seen in public without a walking coat, and it was the only one he had.
He stood at the washstand, where water stains had marred the cross-sawed oak. The circles looked like tiny satellite circles fixed in position relative to the porcelain washbasin. Splashing tepid water over his face, he peered into the cracked looking glass, contemplating the evening to come, when he saw in the reflection that a young woman had concealed herself behind his door. He damned himself. He should have checked. She had on a thin, revealing bodice and wore a bewitching smile. He understood completely. Over the years his most ardent and trustworthy companions were prostitutes, outcasts like him. In taverns in every city he had drunkenly regaled them with his stories while they shared everything they had with him.
But he was tired. He needed to rest before meeting his fiancée that night. Ready to ask her to leave, Edgar flinched. He saw this was no innocent whore. She was his deceased wife Virginia. “Terra es, terram ibis,” he called to her.
“Not quite yet, Edgar,” she smiled as she locked the door.
“Fine then,” Edgar said as he crossed to the bed and patted the mattress. “Come on then,” he said. “Come sit with me. It’s no coincidence you are here. Go on then. Tell me I should not seal a promise of matrimony this evening. But what choice have I?”
They lay together on the bed. When Edgar mentioned he was leaving for Baltimore at dawn, she grew angry. Years earlier they had wed in Baltimore City. She had been thirteen. Then poor beyond words, she recalled how she had stuffed rags around the loose window frames to keep out the wind and chased behind B&O locomotives to collect coals shaken loose from cars as they passed. Anything to keep him writing. But then she became sick, gravely ill, and confined to her bed, all she could hear was the hiss of the wind mixing with the scratch of his pen. It drove her mad; she told him, and wondered how he had managed to remain focused on his work despite her deteriorating condition. Edgar calmly replied that he had no choice. His genius eclipsed all worldly concerns. He told her that she knew this and should not pretend differently. The passing of time did not shift algorithms of fixed memory; he scolded her before falling asleep.
Awoken by a sharp crack of thunder, Edgar raised himself. Through the window glass he saw a steel-colored sunrise and slapped the mattress. He’d slept right through the night. His betrothed would be furious. Rain rattled the windowpane as he drew on his overcoat. He’d have to bypass the widow completely. He could not chance missing the ferry to Baltimore.
There was no sign of the ferry at the dock. In fact the normally bustling pier was dead. Empty. Devoid of anyone expect a tall man wearing oilskins who stood wide-legged on the dock battling the gusts alongside a bobbing boat tied to the dock. Waving a hand, he signaled Edgar forward. Introducing himself as the captain of the sailboat tethered to the dock, he told Edgar he had waited an entire day for him. “I’ll not await another. I warn you. Not all the money in hell will make me stay . . .”
“You are mistaken, sir,” Edgar shot back. “I’ve billet on a seaworthy ferry. What would make you imagine I’d even set foot on that tiny boat of yours in this weather?”
“Perhaps you’ve noticed mine is the only boat docked here?” he said sweeping a hand up the dock. “Your ferry left yesterday.”
Edgar laughed crisply. “I slept deeply but not for an entire day, I assure you.”
“Have it your way,” the captain said, loosening the mooring rope. “I am an honest man, however. I’ve a duty to report that a gentlewoman of obvious high rank approached me yesterday with the oddest request. She said her fiancé, a famous poet, had gone missing. One look at you, and I would never have guessed it, but be that as it may . . .”
“—And to look at you would anyone guess you had sighed over Delphi’s long-deserted shrine. So tell me, Pytho. What was it she sought?”
The captain began looping the mooring rope in right-hand twists. “This poet of hers had apparently missed a dinner, and growing alarmed, she had come down to the docks and watched the ferry load and depart. Catching sight of me, she approached and told me you were missing and that you had important business in Baltimore, and paid me a great deal of money to take you there. But she did not pay me to be insulted. You and your Python be damned.
“There you have it,” he said with a prickly look. “Make up your mind. If I was you, I wouldn’t go. It’s such a tiny boat after all . . .”
They made their way quickly, but much later, when the storm stalled in the open Atlantic and its winds began sweeping up the James River from Norfolk, the waves began crashing over both bow and stern, and the captain announced he was pulling for shore.
Edgar had spent the entire day sick below deck. The few times he’d come up for air he was struck by the captain’s adroitness at sailing close-hauled against the overpowering gusts. Now, hands worn raw, he managed to glide them into a tiny bay on the lee side of a tall bank of trees, and in the relative calm he dropped two anchors.
Collapsing on the deck, the captain curled himself into a sail and slept. The wind was high above them, and Edgar could hear it in the trees. After a while, the steady rocking of the vessel put him to sleep as well, below. It was the shout from hell that awoke him. A hair-raising plea for help.
Crawling up the companionway, he saw the boat was spinning as if caught in a whirlpool. The captain stood holding the mast. “Both anchors worked loose during the night,” he yelled, pointing toward the stern, where the mainsail lay half-submerged.
“You have to help raise it,” the captain pleaded. “If not, we’ll sink.”
With the boom loose and swinging from side to side, the captain warned Edgar to keep his head down. When he had hold of the sail, he’d throw Edgar a rope and yell Now. Only then should he stand and pull with all his might.
Time and again the captain went for the foot of the sail, but each time it slipped back into the water. Finally he took a marlin spar and stabbed the sail, managing to pierce the thick canvas. Forming a spike hitch around the cloth, he ran the free end through a fairlead and tossed the line toward Edgar. “NOW!” he yelled. “Pull, you bastard, pull!”
The rope landed well within Edgar’s reach, but he did not take hold of it. It was one thing to be called godforsaken. To be referred to as a bastard was another thing entirely. He was many things, but baseborn he was not. As the captain stared in disbelief, a gust crossed the deck and caught the tail of the rope, whipping it against the boom with such force that it coiled perfectly around the wooden spar. The boom swung forward and, acting as a lever, began pulling the mainsail out the water. Still secured by the marlinspike, the sail rose, came vertical, and fluttered freely for a moment. Then a powerful gust caught it and sent it hurling forward. As it did, it swung the boom. The point of the marlinspike squarely struck the captain’s chest and sent him sprawling overboard. As the captain and mainsail sank, the stern rose and the bow plunged down, sending Edgar toppling into the boiling river.
When he found himself still in the boardinghouse, Edgar was pleased. He steadied himself on the mattress. Gazing out the window, he could see it was dusk. He was late but not a whole day late. His betrothed would be furious but not beside herself. Clutching his satchel, he threw on his coat and fled through the door.
The Italianate home was lined with marble pillars and corbels and a campanile tower. Raking his fingers through his thinning hair, Edgar bemoaned his missing top hat. No gentleman was seen in public without a top hat. Certainly not he. He pushed through the wrought-iron gate and lumbered up the walkway paved in a herringbone pattern. A vicious-looking satyr cast in brass served as a doorknocker. He detested it. A brass ring clamped in its jaws was intended to be raised and dropped, but he rapped a knuckle on the door instead. It fell open instantly. His fiancée, floating into view, dismissed the girl holding the door.
“Only two hours late this time, Edgar,” she said with an icy look. “Making progress, aren’t we?”
“I was struck with sudden fever,” he began. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise . . .”
“Enough with your excuses,” she said. “Come, Edgar.” She said, spun away dismissively and began marching down the marble foyer. Passing the breakfast room, garden room, and winter room, she halted before a large double door and let Edgar catch sight of the dinner table laid out with good china and silver. “Turkey. Potatoes and peas. All cold now, Edgar. Come,” she huffed, and led him into a mahogany-paneled reading room instead.
Lifting her satin skirts, she settled into a high-backed damask-covered chair made of English walnut and bid him to do the same, opposite her. As he sat down, Edgar noticed a gilt mirror on the far wall fashioned in the neoclassical style and callously accented with carved horn and flute. Her deceased husband had once had a stable of horses and been part of the foxhunting set. After she and Edgar married, after removing the satyr from the front door, he would immediately get rid of the mirror. He could see her reflection in the mirror. Her sharp nose and erect posture made her look younger.
“Is it fever or intemperance that was making you sway as you stood?” she said sharply.
“I’ve not had a drink in weeks,” Edgar replied, crossing leg over knee.
She was stern but not unkind. She’d fallen in love with Edgar when they were scarcely more than children. In some respects she had loved him ever since. Age had played its sentimental waltz on her, and she had often fabricated excuses for his drunkenness, but enough was enough. She was not to be made a fool of. But then again, maybe he was ill. She rose out of her chair and, pulling off her glove, felt his forehead.
Edgar saw her in the mirror, her chestnut hair falling past her face, her poise reminding him of the first time she had leaned down and they had kissed. The only time. Her perfumed mixed with the scent of burning whale oil that fueled the bronze sconces. Gusts of wind rattled the windowpanes.
She felt his forehead and drew back. She said he had a terrible fever. Taking hold of a tiny brass bell, she shook it, and when the girl appeared, she ordered hot tea and cake. When she warned Edgar that he would have to postpone his voyage, he said no and shook the satchel.
After the tea was poured, he watched the servant girl cut dark chocolate cake into perfect wedges. The widow continued to press him to remain in Richmond until his fever broke. When Edgar declined, in a fit of anger she brought up the subject of his being seen alone after a reading in the company of a beautiful young girl.
“Gossip,” Edgar replied. “She brought a book of my poems that she wished personally autographed. What was I to do?”
“And did you, Edgar?”
“Did I what?”
“Did you sign a personal autograph?”
“She offered me five dollars. What choice have I?”
“I see. Is that all the money you possess?”
“Not a penny more.”
“It is hardly enough, is it?” she snapped.
“A quandary, dear, I must admit.”
She fingered her thin pearl necklace. “I suppose you had ulterior motives for knocking on my door this evening then.”
“Of course not. But we are to be engaged. I would offer you what I had if you needed it. “
“I was afraid of this. Had you come pledging everlasting love, I would have given you the world, Edgar. But this you do not know how to do. You imagine the world owes you alms for perceived slights. But you wrongly perceive your own amour-propre. No one owes you anything. Especially me.”
From somewhere within the folds of her dress she withdrew a twenty-dollar bill and, with a great sigh of exasperation, held it out. “Take it. Twenty dollars. It’s all I’ll risk. That you will drink it away tonight I’ve no doubt. But if you do, then never again knock on my door.”
Edgar felt much better after he left. She was angry, but she was always angry, he told himself as he made his way toward the dock, intent on purchasing a ticket. The night was humid, and as he passed warehouses filled with freshly cut tobacco, the pungent smell mixed with the night air. Almost to the dock, he passed a brightly lit tavern. With a glance toward the ferry moored alongside the wharf, he stepped inside.
Two elegantly dressed gentlemen stood at the bar. At the rear of the shotgun-shaped room, four unescorted ladies in flamboyant skirts, their faces heavily powdered, saw him enter and waved him over. As he passed the gentlemen, Edgar touched his head as if he had a hat on. Only one glass of port, he told himself.
When the first bottle was empty, the second was purchased by the two gentlemen, who had moved closer to listen to the banter between Edgar and the four prostitutes. He was just beginning another story when a woman dressed in elegant white silk stepped through the door. Her face was shadowed by a wide-brimmed velvet hat with exotic trailing feathers. A boy in a white tunic followed holding two large upholstered bags. A gilded mirror ran the length of the wall behind the bar, and from his viewpoint Edgar could see how properly she held herself as she asked for a room and dinner. Taking a table, she sat and pulled her skirts close about her. The brightly feathered hat tipped to the side and revealed her face. Raising her head, she made no pretense of acknowledging Edgar’s presence.
The Baltimore-bound steamer left before dawn. Edgar had remained in the tavern all night, and again penniless, he managed to slip aboard with the slaves loading cargo in the dark. Stealthily he made his way down to third class. Unlike the room in the boarding house, the berths aboard ship descended in priority—the more expensive on top deck, the cheaper below the water line. There on the bottom of the ferry a large cargo room was already filled with passengers. Bags, coats, blankets were spread on the floor. He wormed his way through the human chaos and luckily found a space on a bench. He laid his head on his satchel to rest, as the ship’s propeller sent the ferry forward.
But it was stuffy in the room. He got up, climbed the stairway to the top deck, and was just in time to see the vessel leaving the muddy James River to enter the green water of Chesapeake Bay. Standing at the stern, he watched a flight of circling gulls dip and rise in the brightening sky. Behind the ferry, the wash thrown out by the propeller moved in a helix, like the twines of a rope being unfurled. The impelled water had a flexible constancy that struck him as an abstract marker. Rather then the unrolling of a rope as he had first perceived, he saw flowing tresses and within their axis the young face of his deceased wife Virginia. He cursed her. Pleaded with her to leave him alone. She winked innocently as coils of water brought up her arms and folded them back below the surface and brought them up again. On and on it went. So compelling was it that he had unknowingly climbed the rail and was almost at the point of falling overboard when the light of dawn breached the bank of low-hanging clouds. Instantly the water surface shimmered scarlet and erased her tresses. As her arms and face vanished, he readied to leap, but a woman called out to him. He took a step down and saw the voice belonged to the lady who had dined at the tavern the night before. She wore ivory-colored silk and had on the same wide hat with its trailing macaw feathers.
“Mr. Poe,” she exclaimed, “do step down off the rail before you accidentally fall overboard. It would be a pity to have to endure this entire voyage without the pleasure of your company.”
Her words elated him. He dropped to the deck. “Do I know you, madam?” he asked, bowing gingerly from the waist.
“We’ve never actually met,” she answered running a perfectly manicured finger across her top lip. “Still. I feel as if I know you.”
“Oh, yes. I’ve read everything you’ve written and listened with delight as you amused your colorful companions last evening. Fortunately I overheard you tell of your plans to take this ferry. It was I who arranged your passage.”
“Madam?” Edgar said taken aback. “I know I slipped aboard without paying but it was my intention all along to reimburse . . .”
“—I paid the bartender last night to see you were aboard. He told me he had to carry you himself.”
Puzzled, Edgar scratched his head. “Even if it was true, why do such a thing?”
“A few hours’ colloquy with the famous Edgar Allan Poe? For this I would have paid a fortune.”
Tugging at his frayed lapels, smiling broadly, he advanced.
“Mary Reynolds,” she said primly, stretching out a gloved hand.
“Morning steals upon the night, melting the darkness . . .” she said as he took her hand.
“Their rising senses chase the ignorant fumes that mantle their clearer reason . . .” he finished, with an even more radiant smile.
She had just withdrawn her hand when a gust blew across the deck and swept off her hat. They watched it sail away and come to rest brim up on the water like some exotic seabird.
“A hat for Poseidon,” she laughed. A strand of her hair had worked loose and delicately licked the ivory skin of her neck. When she saw him staring, she excused herself. “I must fetch another hat from my bag. After I do, will you join me for breakfast, Mr. Poe?”
“Edgar. Please call me Edgar. And yes. I’d be delighted.”
When she emerged from her room, she looked radiant in a red hat with purple plumes, her hair held back on her neck with a satin ribbon.
When they entered the dinning room, two sleepy waiters snapped to attention. She chose a table to starboard. As the waiters held their chairs, no sooner had they sat when Edgar bolted upright. In a great show, he patted his breast pocket, lamenting that he had been robbed while asleep and no longer had his billfold. Begging forgiveness, he started to go.
“Please sit, Mr. Poe,” she said, patting his seat. “What is spent this morning pales in comparison to the value of your company.”
Beaming, Edgar flipped back the tail of his coat and sat. She ordered for them, and as they ate she told Edgar she had been an admirer of his for years. Her husband was a prominent politician in Baltimore who had succumbed to cholera a few years earlier.
“With no children, I’ve taken to traveling. In fact I am just back from Italy.”
“Sei fortunata signora,” he said.
“Grazie,” she replied.
When they were served coffee, she revealed that she had read much of his work but confessed to being puzzled by the philosophy he espoused in his essay “The Poetic Principle.” She wondered if his argument for l’art pour l’art was more ideal rather than a true measure of the effort involved in crafting a well-reasoned poem.
“Is it not simply a wishful aesthetic?” she asked. “Can this ideal of the absolute expressed in your essay remain so detached from the hard work that goes into a poem’s creation?”
“It is and must be,” he exclaimed. “But Ars gratia artis,” he mumbled, “artistic attachment would embed a rotting . . .”
“As does idealism,” she countered.
In that case he told her she might wish to hear a few chapters from his latest work, a novel he had recently completed. The very reason he was traveling to Baltimore was to see to its publication.
She clapped her hands softly and said she would be delighted, but when Edgar bent to retrieve his satchel, he realized he had left it below. “Forgive me, signora,” he said as he shot to his feet. “I used the satchel for a pillow . . .” Then he stopped himself and eyed her with suspicion. “There are those who would pay a great deal to learn what is in my book. Have I misread you?”
Fleeing the dining hall, he upset a waiter and pushed past a family just entering the hall, leaving behind a chorus of shouts. Reaching the lowest level, he found the room was still dark and humming with a mix of snores. Plowing through the tangle of limbs, he heard curses as he made his way to the bench. Someone had taken his spot and lay prone on the bench, clutching his satchel like a pillow. Edgar grabbed hold of the young boy, who looked up, startled, and began to cry. Someone caught Edgar’s right arm, bending it back almost to the point of breaking. “Confederate!” Edgar railed as he dropped to a knee and felt a thud against his skull.
When he awoke again, the ship’s propeller was silent. The dimly lit lower deck was all but empty save for a few lone souls gathering their belongings. There was a mirror on the opposite wall he had not noticed before, and in it he saw that Mary Reynolds was seated next to him, cradling his head on her lap.
“Ah, so you’ve awakened?” she said, touching his cheek. “Poor thing. You slipped in the dining room after breakfast and struck your head on the table. I considered taking you to my room, but propriety prevented it. Nonetheless, we’ve arrived safely. I’ve a carriage waiting. Please avail yourself of my home. It is both large and very empty. Too empty, I think. And not so distant. Just up Druid Hill. Bathe and rest yourself there, Mr. Poe. Rest and regain your strength.”
She helped him up the stairs, and they walked out into the sunlight. Baltimore City was alive with sound. They passed coils of rope and skirted gantry cranes unloading nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, tobacco, wheat, and other grains. Rowing men in small boats slowly searched for dock space. A mountain of glassy oysters had been spilled onto the dock. A Negro boy in a white shirt pulling a wooden-wheeled cart cried out: “Rock fish! Fresh rock fish! ” High up on the top of Federal Hill, a limp flag barely fluttered. Edgar was gladdened by the prospect of free room and board and was just then beginning to hope that the remainder of his journey would turn out as well, when a sharp cry rang out.
“Poe!” a deep voice called. “Of all the sinners in the world!”
Edgar froze. He knew this voice. Knew it belonged to someone to whom he owed a great deal of money. A tall bearded man, deeply tanned, stood in uniform aboard a darkly lacquered brigantine. Raising his chin, he signaled toward two sailors, who disembarked, strode up to Edgar, and took hold of his arms. But Mary Reynolds waved toward her carriage at the foot of the dock. Her teamster leaped off and quickly made his way down the planks toward them.
“What say you, Poe?” the uniformed man called out again. “Have a visit with your old captain, shall we?” he said with a coarse laugh.
“What’s going on?” Mary said, shaken, as the two sailors held Edgar. The teamster neared and asked if he could be of assistance. Hoping to defuse the danger, Edgar asked her to go. He would hurry along as soon as possible and warned the teamster: “These are men you would do well not to confront.”
The teamster stepped forward anyway, and one of the sailors shoved him back.
Edgar called toward the uniformed captain and told him he would board, and promised Mary Reynolds he would follow as soon as he was able. As he went up the gangway to the deck of the brigantine, he could see her staring from her carriage, but then the captain drew him into an embrace and Edgar felt his ribs crack.
“How long has it been?” the captain whispered coldly.
Edgar struggled to catch his breath. “Years. Many years,” he coughed.
The captain’s fingernails were filed into sharp points, and as he raked them across Edgar’s scalp he said, “You’ve a knot on your head the size of Java. Always in some sort of trouble, aren’t you, Poe. Have I made a mistake, or do I recall giving you a handful of coins the last time we met? In return you promised to create for me a story, but you vanished instead. I waited some days, but you never appeared. Have you this story or no?”
Edgar rattled his satchel. “I have. I do!”
“For your sake I hope it’s a good one,” he said, pulling Edgar by the arm. “Let’s slip below deck where it is cooler and give it a listen.”
They made their way down into the cabin. In darkness, Edgar fumbled through a narrow corridor and was glad to enter a well-lit room paneled from floor to ceiling in oiled teak. A sofa covered in magenta-colored velvet stood before a table of lignum vitae that held two large jeweled boxes.
The captain sat down heavily. Patting the mattress, he indicated to Edgar to sit beside him and then clapped his hands sharply. A dark-skinned woman emerged from behind a beaded curtain. Instantly Edgar recognized her as Ethan’s sister Rebecca. What a turn of events. As a young girl she had worn a dirt-colored smock while scrubbing the floors of their plantation house in Richmond. Now here she was brightly clad in a gown of iridescent silk.
The captain addressed her in a tongue Edgar did not understand. She nodded and left, returning quickly with crystal goblets she had filled with absinthe. Kneeling before them, she opened one of the jeweled boxes, and from among loose, rare black pearls she extracted an azure-colored satin sack. Loosening a cord of golden twine, she spilled out a brick of tar-colored opium. From somewhere inside the folds of her skirt she withdrew a sparkling stiletto and began studiously carving thin ribbons from the thick block.
As they drank and smoked, the captain eased back on the sofa and regaled Edgar with tales of faraway islands; black-sand beaches rimmed with opalescent pearls, jungle temples mortared in pure silver, ivory-skinned mermaids skimming the surface of the sea. And as he spoke in a melodic voice, daylight passed. As sweet-smelling oil lamps were lit, the captain told Edgar that it was now his turn.
Edgar had never felt better. He stared at the girl, who now stood above him waving a palm frond. Behind her a tapestry woven of rubies illuminated an erotic scene involving a unicorn and a maiden. Tossing back his head, in sotto voce, he began a story concerning a meditative man named Egaeus who lived in a castle with his attractive cousin Berenice. Egaeus was an anemic, eremitic personality, he told the captain, while Berenice was lovely and affable.
The two shared a happy life together until her fifteenth year, when during a bitter winter storm she took ill. In no time at all she was struck by a rare debilitating malady that rapidly stripped her of her youthful beauty. As Egaeus saw her fair skin pus and blister, a half-numbing dementia took hold of him. As weeks passed, he called in doctors from distant lands. Priests and bishops, too, but no good came of it. Distraught by her increasing frailty, reflecting only on her metamorphosis, he asked her to marry him. They were set to wed the following morning, but when he awoke that day he found her cold and still.
Carrying her down to his library, he closed her open eyes with his fingers and pushed at her loose jaw, but her mouth kept falling open. Up he sent it and down it fell. The harder he pushed, the looser became her jaw. He was at wit’s end when a ray of sunlight struck her teeth. Despite weeks and months of deterioration of her body, despite her black blistered lips, her teeth that were still perfect, still shining brilliantly.
Startled awake by a flash of lightning, Egaeus found himself in his own bed. Someone was crying for him. He heard shouts and pleading. As he stood, he saw it was well past dusk. He did not recall having retired to his room, but the violent shouts hurried him out from it. Donning a velvet robe, he raced down the long alabaster stairway and was almost out of breath when he reached the library and heard his name called once again. When he pushed through the paneled door, he was surprised to find the eminent doctor he had paid well to call in nightly on Berenice. The doctor was kneeling over her, but seeing Egaeus enter, he rose and with a shaking hand pointed toward him.
Bewildered, Egaeus looked down and saw that his robe was stained with blood. Now the shaking doctor was pointing toward Berenice. Egaeus brushed past him and snatched from a table a jeweled box. But in his haste he stumbled, and it fell and spilled out its contents. Out tumbled thirty-two perfectly shaped teeth.
The ship captain howled with delight and told Edgar he had done well. He waved at the native girl. She knelt, tilted her head, slipped the lit pipe inside her fine lips, and began to blow a steady stream of smoke from her mouth into Edgar’s while her fingers unbuttoned his trousers. The last time he had seen her, she had been standing before a washboard near the well at his home in Richmond. On that hot summer day her dirty smock had ridden up her thighs, and when Edgar had pushed into her, she gasped. “Go ahead,” she said. “Just like you daddy done.”
Edgar awoke to the prodding of a policeman’s billystick. He lay on his back in a damp alley, shivering uncontrollably. Luckily the policeman’s comrade had pulled the cape from his own shoulders and draped it over Edgar’s naked body before walking into the nearby tavern. Having recognized Edgar, he returned with two whores, who with great care took hold of Edgar and carried him inside.
The prostitutes knew him or knew of him, and while some took him to a room, others collected clothing and then washed and dressed him. He emerged wearing wide-fitting cotton trousers, a canvas shirt many sizes too large for his small frame, a very wide-brimmed straw hat with a black band around its crown, and a scuffed pair of women’s shoes on his tiny feet.
Sitting him regally at a corner table, they fed him spooned broth and lima beans. He was told that if he finished his dish they would bring drink, so he ate with gusto. By this point the patrons were looking his way as rumor spread of Baltimore’s favorite son’s return.
In no time he was regaling the ever-growing crowd with stories and recitations, until finally he bewitched them with the conspiracy tale of his recent kidnapping by a pirate captain, lamenting how once again his chance at love had been preempted.
Hearing the story, a gang of drunks stormed outside, intent on bringing the captain of the brigantine to justice. By now the tavern was overflowing with new arrivals. A jar was passed that soon filled with coins to assist the famous writer, while promises of more suitable clothing and pledges to shelter him for the night rang out.
Shortly, the gang of drunks returned dragging behind them a sleepy-eyed sailor badly beaten about the face. They pushed their way through the crowd and righted him. They asked Edgar if this was the pirate. Before Edgar could manage a reply, a ruddy-cheeked fellow wearing a tight bowler hat on a very wide head butted his way forward.
“Pardon the intrusion!” he said, gripping his lapels. “Everyone knows me here, Mr. Poe,” he continued, as he swept his eyes around the room. “I’ve served twenty years as harbor signalman here. Spent half my damn life perched on Federal Hill staring out over open water. My task is to give fair warning of approaching vessels. Training my brass telescope on the open water, I study the approach of a vessel until its outline draws clear and I can say with certainty if it is a barge or barque. Clipper or cutter. Whaling ship or frigate. When I’m certain, I hoist a flag high on Federal Hill so all the merchants of Baltimore stand alerted. We are a harbor town, Mr. Poe. Our very existence depends on our ability to offload goods quickly and get them to market. So it is incumbent on me to offer fair warning to the hundreds of stevedores and riggers, laborers and bailers, liveries and cart men, icemen and railroad men, who require knowing what sort of vessel approaches. I’ve listened to this story of yours and regret to say that no brigantine has docked in our harbor today. Nor this week. Nor the week previous. As far as the steamer goes, allow me a postscript. The ferry steamer was the last boat in today. I watched it dock, and by the time I made my way down Federal Hill it had emptied save for a lone reprobate found lying naked and beaten in the bottom hold. He had no ticket, and the shipmaster had no record of his boarding. They did what they always do to trespassers who smuggle themselves aboard ships without paying. I did not pay it much mind, but now that I see you closer, there is a resemblance. So why don’t we agree that your story was just that? Release this poor innocent sailor. What do you say? Shake hands and buy him a drink, Mr. Poe?”
Edgar rose slowly. He felt unbalanced. His head ached. “Tell me,” he began, “do you peer through your looking glass with both eyes or just one?”
“Why, of all the strangest things I have ever heard,” the signalman began.
“One eye or two?”
“Just one eye, for god’s sake.”
“Tell me then. Polyphemus! What worldly optician gives you license to impugn me with this malicious tale of prevarication? Tell me. Tell us all, for that matter,” he said, sweeping an arm toward the crowd. “Does your myopia blind you from also hearing? Is there anyone you personally know who is able to fabricate such a story as I have just told my friends here?”
As he smiled triumphantly, the crowd began to cheer for Edgar. The signalman, sensing the turn, judiciously began worming his way out, but as he did, something caught Edgar’s eye. “Wait a moment, Cyclops!” he said scornfully. Edgar’s attention had focused on a Masonic symbol pinned to the signalman’s lapel. “Stonecutter!” Edgar called out. “This explains your duplicity, you confederate.” He pointed toward the lapel pin. “No wonder he lied!” he called to the crowd.
With nothing to lose, the signalman leaped toward Edgar. His weight drove Edgar back with such force that when his head struck the table behind him, he blacked out.
Roused from his bed, the physician wearily drove his one-horse carriage through the pouring rain to attend to the famous poet. But when he got to the hospital, he saw it was useless. The patient had suffered severe brain trauma. Still in street clothes, the doctor pushed back his broad-brimmed hat, took off his gloves, and felt for a pulse. Raising a gilt-framed rectangular mirror to Poe’s mouth, he saw a faint breath cloud the mirror and fade.