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On a rust-bucket cargo ship bound from Liverpool to the United States in 1848, an Irish stowaway named Devlin steals a suspicious package after witnessing it changing hands between two sea captains. All he finds is a seemingly worthless pile of papers marked “David Copperfield, Final Four Numbers, by Charles Dickens.” Devlin is determined to see if he can somehow turn events to his advantage by paying a call on Dickens’s American publisher.
A year later, a newly admitted patient to a Baltimore hospital, a disreputable writer who goes by the name of Edgar Allan Poe, is clearly raving mad, which makes it easy to dismiss his claims to have information about the murder of an innocent woman.
Meanwhile, the eminent English novelist Charles Dickens has embarked on a tour of America, where his views are not received as he would have wished. Dickens’s growing discomfort reaches new heights of intensity when he finds himself sharing disreputable lodgings---and reluctantly collaborating with---none other than Edgar Allan Poe, who has gone into hiding after faking his own death in a desperate attempt to escape the Irish mob.
Like White Stone Day, which The Washington Post hailed as “a Dickens of a thriller,” this is a brilliantly imaginative tale in which crime and literature intersect in surprising ways.
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John MacLachlan Gray is a writer-composer-performer for the stage, television, film, radio, and print. He is best known for his stage musicals. Billy Bishop Goes to War was produced on Broadway by Mike Nichols in 1980, and was the most produced show in America for four years. He has received the Governor General’s Medal, the Gordon Montador Award, a Los Angeles Critic’s Circle Award, a gold at the New York Television Festival, and a silver Hugo. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and two sons.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter 1 Here begin the memoirs of Dr. William Chivers, not to be read until the author’s demise. I do not expect that my tale will enhance my reputation. I can but trust the fair-minded reader to take into account my years of service and my spotless moral character, up until the events of which I write.
Perhaps you have already grasped the fact that, as you read this, I myself am dead. While I cannot personally affirm this, the manuscript in your hand was secured in a sealed envelope, care of the lawyer Carville D. Bendix of Richmond, with clear instructions that it remain so until my death. Only if he followed my instructions to the letter was he to receive the balance of his fee. (Ordinarily, lawyers are paid to circumvent the law, but not in this case.)
In reporting the following I harbor two objects:
My first aim, and a public-spirited one, is to shed light on the lingering mystery over the death of Edgar Allan Poe—the author, critic, and essayist, whose fame and notoriety will resound long after my death, and yours too, dear reader, I dare say.
My second purpose is to attain an understanding for myself of the events to follow, and to place them in the context of natural law.
Since Eddie’s catastrophic reappearance in my life, one question has nettled my mind by the day, the hour, the minute: By what cause-and-effect sequence of natural events did this happen?
I say “natural” because many would resort to a metaphysical explanation, which is how the ignorant deal with the unknown. Here in the New World, a plenitude of spooks have immigrated from Europe and Africa on the backs of their believers—not to mention the all-embracing Christian hobgoblin of Original Sin, pounded into us every Sunday morning.
Having eschewed the supernatural, and having found no explanation through ratiocination, I write the following in the hope that a trickle of enlightenment might escape through the nib of my pen onto the paper before me. I write to inform myself; to notice what I see; to enlighten the part of me that thinks it thinks.
At the end of it I hope to put a period to my tale, in mind and on paper, and to lock it away like a tiresome volume of verse—penned, no doubt, by Edgar Allan Poe.
Though my name appears on the title page it seems apt that I identify myself fully. My name is (or from the reader’s point of view, was) Dr. William John Chivers. I served as resident physician at Washington College Hospital until my resignation (which occurred shortly before its bankruptcy, though I was in no way responsible), and I am an alumnus of the college as well. Putting aside my service in the Mexican War, the hospital was my life—and my home, since my wife’s passing, when I took rooms on the top floor.
Though as mentioned I am far from superstitious, as happens with anyone whose life takes an unexpected direction, looking back I am surprised by the absence of anything like a premonition. Seated in my armchair, smoking my pipe, scowling at the latest issue of the Scientific American, from my point of view there was nothing unusual whatsoever about the arrival of an emergency patient.
It was Election Day in Baltimore, when white male citizens over the age of twenty-one exercised their franchise with their fists. Inevitably, injuries accrued.
As well, city hospitals such as ours were almost always located in the poor neighborhoods near the docks, whose residents occupy the underside of the city—creatures of sea and land, creatures with claws and teeth. From Washington College Hospital, a short stroll down the hill brought you to Lombard Street, an area notorious for beatings, knifings, garroting, and other popular pastimes of inner-city life.
Therefore, it was scarcely an unusual occurrence that, by mid-afternoon on Election Day, a citizen might find himself transported to Washington College Hospital with a concussion, sans his money and watch. In this context, the carriage was spot on schedule, and as I watched the vehicle ascend Washington Hill in a steady grist of rain I actually laughed to myself—snorted rather—as though someone had just told me an old, tired joke.
Whoever the patient was, he was hard up and without family or friends, otherwise he would surely have been nursed at home. Nobody went to Washington College Hospital willingly. Once you encounter the term hospital gangrene, by mouth or in print, it tends to stay with you.
In all fairness to my institution, the patient would have been no better off at home. It was the state of medical care that, whichever building you occupied, if you broke a leg and it festered, you would probably die. If you contracted a bad cold or a kidney stone, you might well die. If you were pregnant, there was an excellent chance that you, the child, or both of you would die.
Or more often than not, a person would die with no warning at all: your aunt might experience an earache one evening while at her knitting, and by morning would be discovered dead, having slept late.
People died all the time. In the streets, taverns, and gambling halls, it was not a rare thing for a man, in mid-stride or mid-shout or mid-piss, to drop dead in his tracks. From an early age, pedestrians were taught to distinguish between a sleeping man and a dead man in the street (the sleeping man will cross his ankles).
In short, death was easier to achieve than life, and in America that was enough for devout Protestants to apply the work ethic. Your aunt did not become sick, she began to fail. Death was capitulation, and thoughts of death self-defeating, like the expectation of losing at a sport. Though the popular veneration of death approached obscenity in its public expression, the dead themselves were privately despised. People approached hospitals as they might a house filled with vampires, and I have seen even Baptists cross themselves upon entering.
Doctors, on the other hand, tend to view death as akin to the force of gravity: to be resisted or delayed wherever possible, but sooner or later, everyone fails. . . . the mad race run
Up to the end, the golden goal
Attained and found to be a hole!—Ambrose Bierce As resident physician, my private rooms were situated on the top floor of the right tower, its pointed roof directly over my head like a dunce’s cap. It made for a tiresome stair-climb but afforded a majestic view of the landmarks of the city—General Washington, Nelson-like on his sixty-foot column; the towers of the great Catholic church; the masts of clippers in the harbor.
Perhaps I relit my pipe, or stoked my blazing fire against what would surely be a cold, dank evening—unseasonably so for October, unhealthily wet, the barometer falling and a squall on the way.
Having painted this cozy domestic picture of myself, it seems odd to disclose that for some time I had been thinking about taking my own life. By mentioning this I do not wish to cast myself in a tragic light. I was not in a state of romantic mourning, nor did I despair for the human race. I swear that the incentive arose from pure laziness, the urge to be done with the tiresome work of breathing.
When it came to the act of suicide, however, my deep laziness proved also a blessing, for if I lacked the motive to live, neither was I prepared to take the initiative and bring about my death.
As a consequence, I adopted a pattern of behavior in which I took a detached, scientific interest in life, almost to the exclusion of any other sensation. This disposition made for a conscientious physician, which is to say that I killed fewer patients than did my colleagues. As well, I had compiled a thick portfolio of scientific articles that will surely be of interest one day, or perhaps not.
For probably the fifth time that day, I descended the spiral staircase like an insect going down a drain, entering the great hall just in time to watch the patient carried to the south end of the building—a wing reserved for the Agitated Insane—and ensconced in a private room. Who is paying? I wondered. A close relative, probably—though not so close as to nurse the patient himself. Not an unusual occurrence when it came to the Agitated Insane—defined as patients whose words and behavior had become an embarrassment to the family.
Unlike other sections of the hospital, the wing distinguished itself not by sight or smell, but by sound—an aggregate of confused desperation; a chattering fugue in which occasionally recognizable words could be discerned: “Jesus! . . . Mother! . . . Snakes!”
In the room next door to the patient, like a soloist at the opera, a gentleman intoned a litany that might have been said by an especially repentant priest: “O wretch that I am behold my degradation and ruin what I have suffered and lost and the sorrow and misery I have brought upon others I could sink through this bed into the lowermost abyss forsaken by God, O God . . .”
According to Nurse Slatin, the new arrival had been lying in the gutter on Light Street outside Gunner’s Hall with his head on his valise since early dawn. A compositor with the Baltimore Sun happened to notice a crowd collecting and recognized the fellow as somebody famous. After calling for an ambulance, the compositor even went so far as to place a note in the man’s coat pocket:
Dear Sir or Madam—
This gentleman was found rather the worse for wear near 4th ward polls. He goes under the cognomen Edgar Allan Poe & appears in great distress & says he is acquainted with you & is in need of immediate assistance. I was told to inform Mr. Neilson Poe and will do so.
Yours in haste,
Jos. W. Walker
A Christian gentleman, I thought, and a charitable one. A rare combination in Baltimore on Election Day.
The patient was indeed in a bad way. It required the strength of two additional nurses to put him to bed. Delirious, drenched in sweat, with a violent tremor of the limbs, staring wildly at the ceiling, he kept repeating a name I heard clearly as Riley—but which could have been the Queen of Sheba for all it meant.
After ordering Nurse Slatin and her assistant to prepare plasters, I began the examination . . . and abruptly stopped cold.
Well, bless me, if it isn’t Eddie Poe.
His medical condition did not at all surprise me, yet his appearance certainly did, as it would anyone who had ever known him.
Even when addled and penniless, Poe’s deportment remained smart and orderly, with a well-trimmed mustache, artfully coifed hair, and impeccable linen. By contrast, the gentleman on the bed lay vestless and tieless, in ill-fitting, filthy trousers and a crumpled, yellowed shirt. A stained, faded old bombazine coat had been spread across the foot of the cot. A cheap, greasy palm-leaf hat lay beside his pillow.
The nurses undressed and bathed the patient, then applied the plasters to his feet, thighs, and abdomen, whereupon he began to writhe violently. Color rose to his face and the vessels became swollen at the temples. I ordered ice to be applied to his head and heat to his extremities. The nurses carried this out, to a mournful accompaniment from the gentleman next door:
He who arches the heavens and upholds the universe has His decrees written upon the frontlet of every human being and upon demons incarnate!
Despite my efforts, the muscular twitching and jerking did not subside but grew more violent. At last, however, he began to grow tired, and after a general tremor, fell into a stupor.
For an emergency physician, the first step in treating a new patient is to determine what happened to him. This would lead, one hoped, to either a cure or an explanation. In the absence of a cure, the victory lay in diagnoses: though the patient died, at least you knew why.
Had he fallen in with Election Day rowdies who plied him with drink and robbed him? Had he suffered a contusion to the head and succumbed to swelling of the brain?
I surveyed his personal effects, stacked in the corner of the room, and was satisfied that he had not been robbed. No assailant would leave his victim with a walking stick and a leather valise—both of which I recognized from our time together at West Point.
As I observed the prone figure before me, his eyes opened slightly. Though I detected no sign of recognition, he seemed to calm somewhat on seeing me, and fell into a jittery doze.
By now the assistant nurse had left for other duties and the admitting nurse was impatient for her cup of tea. I gave the dismissal, Nurse Slatin trundled resentfully out of sight, and the door closed, and now I stood alone with the wretched figure of my oldest acquaintance in the world. I would not go so far as to call him a friend.
As noted, to anyone with even a vague familiarity with his reputation it could hardly come as a shock that Eddie Poe had fallen into such a state. Nor did his presence in Baltimore seem odd; although identified with Richmond and Philadelphia, generations of Poes had hailed from Baltimore, and the family plot was situated there.
At some point during his admission, Nurse Slatin informed me that a Baltimore cousin by the name of Neilson had paid for his private room. This fitted with what I knew of Eddie: no doubt he had visited his relations in Baltimore to borrow money, with which to drink and medicate himself to oblivion.
Down the hall, the wretched babble continued as the gentleman in the next room segued to a nautical theme:
Where is the gulf beyond the stream where is the buoy lifeboat ship of fire sea of brass, test, test, shore no more!
I examined the patient’s pulse: One hundred and twenty beats to the minute, feeble, sharp, and irregular. As a treatment I considered a febrifuge mixture and a nerve stimulant. (I did not probe nor palpitate so as not to disturb him.) Oddly, I detected no smell of alcohol, only a sour, metallic odor common to inhalers of arsenic, cocaine, and codeine—sometimes used as additives in snuff mixtures. Obviously, the absence of alcohol did not mean that no other medicament or poison had been consumed, and in quantity.
In my preliminary judgment, Poe’s condition represented a latter stage of a well-documented general deterioration, a brain poisoned by morbidity, excitability, medicaments, and drink. The only mystifying circumstance was that, by fate or by fluke, he should find himself with me as his attending physician—at my mercy, so to speak. I could have smothered him with a pillow and none would be the wiser...
“O God, is there no ransom for the deathless spirit?” cried the patient next door.
As my mind turned to unhealthy speculation I became immersed in the wallpaper—an ornate floral pattern once arrayed in patriotic colors, now a blotched greenish-gray and emitting a musty sweetness.
Is there no ransom for the deathless spirit? Copyright © 2007 by John MacLachlan Gray. All rights reserved.
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Book Description Minotaur Books, 2007. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0312374712