The second instalment of a speculative account of the death of John William Polidori.
Link to first instalment.
The first thing that crossed my mind was that I might be dead. But I was patently still here. Although I might not have to pay the next month’s rent. Nor the previous three month’s that I owed.
How I surveyed the situation I cannot say. I knew I wasn’t imagining things, but at the same time I could not imagine what would happen next. My perception was active, my thoughts erratic, my will… scattered. I looked at the manuscript of the Fall of the Angels. I was planning on adding three more cantos.
I looked at my body, which now seemed of lesser importance than the fact I wouldn’t finish my masterwork. Tightness closed in. My stomach felt like a void. I looked at the disordered papers.
How would I finish the manuscript if–?
And Ximenes. All those haphazard lines to rewrite. How ashamed I’m of them now.
I rushed once again for the quill resting on the dedication page: To My Book
I know I dream,
Thinking thy form can gain immortal gleam
Of fame—but yet a straw is grasp’d when fail
The bough or bush upon the stream, though frail–
Ximenes, the Wreath : and other poems, by J. W. Polidori, ‘To My Book’
Counterposing ‘fail’ and ‘frail’ was terribly close to rime riche, a sin in English poetry. I didn’t care about that. I wanted to swap fail and frail.
I dropped the quill as Mr R– rushed back in, this time with my father Gaetano! That’s right, he returned to London today. He grabbed my hand, my former hand, I know not how to classify it. He attempted to prise open the steely clutching fingers. My hand tingled – the hand attached to me –.
Words cannot describe the look on my father’s face. It was as if he was weeping over my dead body. “If‒, if only I’d returned, yesterday. Or earlier, today.” He got up quickly, all too quickly, and had to steady himself.
He turned to Mr R– and said monotonously: “I will send servants from my residence in Golden Square this afternoon to collect,” he paused, coughing, “my son.” He pushed his hat down on his head and exited.
I wanted to flee after my father but my motions were slow. Placing one foot after the other was like walking in water. I approached the bed, looked down at my corporeal body. Could the body on the bed be the corporeal one, and this – I touched my chest – ethereal?
Mr R– pulled the sheets up to my chin. The head – my head – on the bed – rolled sideways in limp sympathy. It looked directly at Mr R–, causing him to stand erectly like a coiled spring released. Suffice it to say, Mr R– was in a mild flummox. He backed towards the door, first hesitatingly, then rapidly.
I followed him as he fumbled for the door knob before plummeting out onto the street. Yes, I followed him, almost automatically.
As soon as I exited my whole body tingled, like my hand had previously. The tingling swept through me as if I was a field of daffodils fluttering in the breeze. I felt more ‘real’. But was ‘real’ right word? Sur-real.
My mind cleared slightly as I left the room. Why was I able to follow Mr R– and not my father? I couldn’t think. My mind: used to wandering with the faeries of imagination, was now a slug steeped in oily residue.
Outside in the street perspective was all wrong, time moved forward, but not smoothly forward. It lurched like a limping beggar. I could not focus on anything for long. The back of Mr R– was clearer than the other personages which accosted my withered orbs.
Dear reader, forgive the use of flowery words, for orbs can only describe the holes that formerly served as eyes: what they now bequeathed me was not sight. A kaleidoscope of hallucination – but forgive me, I know not how to describe it.
A street sweeper hauled a pile of refuse into the road, narrowly missing my shoes. Before I had raised my fist in admonishment he walked right through me. In trying to grasp the implications I doubled over, heaving. I stumbled after Mr R–, my hand outstretched to fend off the delirious swaying street.
I hadn’t walked far when the clouds above billowed, the wind became a gale and a terrifying whirlwind spiralled towards me. Somehow it left its surroundings completely undisturbed. Before I could emit a cry of amazement, the whirlwind inclined its funnel towards my head. I looked up helplessly.
Two seconds or two hours later, I know not the measure of time, I was spat out upright.
I stood two blocks from Great Pulteney Street. Next to me was Mr R–. Before him was the plaque of the local constabulary. Before he could knock, the door swung inward and he stumbled forward into parish constable Sedgewick, who was holding a cheese sandwich.
“Mr R–, if you were so keen for lunch you could have just said so.” He patted his jolly stomach.
“Constable Sedgewick, pardon the interruption. There has been an incident at my lodgements, 38 Great Pulteney Street.”
“An incident?” Constable Sedgewick tore a bite off the sandwich, throwing the remainder at a couple of pigeons in the gutter.
The pit in Mr R–’s stomach widened as the pigeons voraciously jousted over the crust.
I, myself, felt neither hunger nor thirst.
“I was heading that way now, on my way to the Queen’s Head.”
Mr R– looked in the gutter.
“That was yesterday’s breakfast. A real rump awaits a real man.” He patted his stomach again, slower this time when he it occurred to him that Mr R–’s face was paler than usual.
I did not hear the remainder of the dialogue. The whirlwind returned as assuredly as rush hour traffic on Holburn Hill: My-self, wan Mr R– and plump Sedgewick (and a pigeon) were sucked into the vortex.
We unfolded before 38 Great Pulteney Street. Except another man was present. He was the only one not surprised by the sudden commotion of a bird in the lobby. He calmly stepped aside as the pigeon flew out in the direction of Beak Street.
The only thing this man had in common with the ratman was his youth. Although not past twenty-five, he leaned intermittently on a walking stick. His strong hand was encased in the tweed sleeve of a jacket that was a trifle too hot for the late summer. He wore his flat cap to the left so that the brim cast a shadow over his ear.
He stiffly offered his free hand to Mr R–: “Detective Fielding. And you are?”
“Mr R–.” Mr R– gestured for the gentlemen to enter.
Constable Sedgewick hestitated, “After you, Harry.”
Mr R– stopped them both briefly: “Before you enter, just to let you know – the reputation of my business is–”
“Worry not,” said Detective Fielding, “’discretion is not a dirty word in my line of work.”
…To be continued