For the third time, Edgar Allan Poe asked the old man, “And you say you know me?”
The man nodded, his smile never wavering.
“I know of you, yes. And I know your stories.”
Edgar Poe coughed into his hand and looked intently at the old man. The hand he’d coughed into trembled slightly, as did its fellow. He folded his arms across his chest to hide the tremor.
“I see,” said Poe, his mouth forming a smile he hoped was as warm as the one the old man wore, “I must admit to being flattered, as well as flabbergasted, by this news. May I ask what stories of mine you’ve read?”
The old man nodded again.
“All of them.”
Edgar Poe raised his eyebrows, and his large eyes lit with a cynical flame. He nodded and said, “Well! Really, now!”
The old man must have caught the cynicism in that reply, because his smile faded, just the smallest bit.
“All of your stories, your verse, and your essays,” the old man said, “I am acquainted with your entire canon.”
Poe softened the light in his glance. The old man had sat down across from him in one of the train’s passenger cars and started up this rather provocative dialogue by calling him by name. This had piqued Poe’s curiosity enough to continue the odd conversation for a number of minutes. But something in the old man’s demeanor pulled at a thread of disquiet within the fabric of the traveler’s heart. There was madness in those eyes. Madness and an undefined danger, closely concealed. Of this Poe was growing quite certain.
“Well, then—if you would indulge me—may I please express my gratitude to one who has endeavored to commit to memory both my name, and the rather spotty issue of my pen?”
The old man’s smile returned fully at this.
“You may,” he said.
He continued, “I have danced at the revels of Prince Prospero, stopping only when the great clock in the royal hall chimed the hour, or when a certain mummer removed his crimson mask. I have lain trussed beneath the swinging doom of the auto-da-fe; I have descended into the maelstrom. I have ridden alongside a gallant knight in search of El Dorado, and I have seen the lone cloud with the demon’s face against the blue of heaven’s sky. I have cheered the conquering hero who is but a worm, and I have perched on the bust of Pallas above a midnight chamber door. I have stopped my ears in vain against a sound like the ticking of a watch wrapped in cotton. I have fallen with Usher’s house, and I have wandered the still streets of the city in the sea.”
Poe raised his eyebrows yet again, but there was nothing cynical in that look.
Giving a small bow, he said, “Again, please allow me to express my gratitude. I am honored.”
The old man nodded, then sat silently for some minutes, looking Poe fully in his face. The old man was medium in both stature and in build, dressed in quiet but costly refinery. His hair was gray but bushy and smartly combed on his head, as were his full moustache and beard. The flesh of the lower half of his face that was not fully covered with hair sported a spiny growth of gray stubble. The eyes of the old man were faded blue, like gentle seas with storms rolling in on inward horizons. The old man’s voice was low in pitch, a bit rough with age, and it carried a hint of an accent born of climes found in the American Southeast. Perhaps even Poe’s own Virginia. Poe looked back at the old man and found his mind wandering pleasantly, all thoughts of danger and insanity swept clean away.
The old man spoke, bringing Poe from his reverie. Poe blinked his great, dark eyes and shook himself.
“And now,” said the old man, “If you would indulge me, I have a proposal I’d like to make you. An offer of employment.”
Poe’s feeling of disquiet returned full force. This was no doubt where the little encounter would turn ugly. The man would offer to collaborate on some snippet of a story he carried around with him; they could split the meager but certain profits--
The old man smiled wider. “Let me reassure you, Mr. Poe. I’m not a writer, nor do I pretend to be one. I have no muse-given tale of the ages that I’m just busting to have you pen for me.”
Only a partial relief filled Poe when he heard this. His sense of disquiet remained, growing within him, and he listened, carefully, remaining silent and watchful.
Said the old man, “I have a manuscript I’d like set down on paper. I believe that you are the perfect man to do that.”
Despite his wariness, Poe heard himself say, “And may I ask, just what is this manuscript?”
The old man reached into an inner pocket in the vest coat he wore and extracted a long, thin, yellowish envelope.
“It would be easier all around if you simply read the proposal for yourself, which is written on the page in this envelope,” the old man said. He extended the envelope toward Poe.
Poe did not move for a second. Then, with every fiber of his person in rebellion against the movement, he leaned forward and took the envelope.
Poe looked at the envelope for a full minute before opening it and pulling the sheet of dun-colored parchment folded inside.
In his seat across from Poe, the old man watched, his visage easy, his countenance pleasant.
Poe began to read the document, eyes moving over the surface of the paper. Every now and then, he would stop, and then continue. After a minute of this routine, Poe suddenly lowered the paper and looked at the old man across from him.
“You,” said Poe, “are making light of me.”
The old man shook his head. “No,” he said quietly, “I assure you, I am not.”
Poe looked at his seat-mate, and then lowered his eyes back to the manuscript. He read on for a minute more, and then he brought the paper down from his eye-line in a hand pulled into a shaking claw. Poe’s face was pale, and his eyes were black with rage.
He spoke, his voice lowered in the closeness of the coach. “This . . . this is either a joke, or it is . . . it is blasphemy.”
The old man raised his eyebrows in a fashion similar to Poe’s.
Poe felt his mouth form the words, “Who is this sitting across from me?”
The old man’s smile grew toothy. “Would you care to bet me your head?”
Poe grabbed the paper and the envelope and thrust it back at the old man.
“I will speak no more of this, and I will speak no more to you. Good day, and do not think to darken the air I breathe again with your pestilence, or I will certainly call a porter—if not a priest!—to remove you physically from my presence.”
The old man leaned forward and said, “But why not write it? Your life has been tossed by callous winds blown by the One I wish to put down. What has He even given you but sorrow, and pain, and unending disappointment? He is not worthy of the Throne He sits on, and that is why I want to throw Him from it. What you write for me here will help me do that.”
Poe stood and quickly began to exit the coach.
The old man’s voice called out, low but insistent behind him:
“And what of your Virginia? Would you not see her again?”
Poe stopped at the car door. He turned back to the old man. A number of his fellow passengers looked at up at him with mild curiosity.
The old man, his soft blue eyes bright and serious, said quietly from his seat, “You know I can give you that.”
Poe looked at the old man. His hands, his legs, and his mouth all shook.
The old man looked back at him, his face neutral, no longer smiling.
Poe’s lips moved, quivering.
“Dicens: Vade retro me.”
He turned and threw the car door open. Stepping outside, the noise of the train on its tracks deafened him; the winds from the rushing cars buffeted him. He entered the next car, went through it, exited that car, and entered the next one after.
He was now in the sleeping car. Rows and rows of curtained berths stretched before him. He stopped and caught his breath. He fought to bring what had just happened to him to some kind of logical clarity. Had he hallucinated? Was it the horrors returning to him, the screaming phantoms of delirium tremens? But he hadn’t touched a bottle in months!
He decided to find a berth and lie down. Maybe rest would do him good. He looked around him to see if any were empty. All had their curtains pulled. Poe bitterly walked forward to access the next sleeper car.
He was nearly to the door when one of the curtains near his right hand moved against his wrist, thrilling him with its spider’s touch. He looked down.
A hand, slim and pale, appeared beneath the curtain. It moved out, into the open air, its fingers twirling, questing. A voice, high and light, drifted from the space behind.
“Eddie . . .”
Edgar Poe moved back and away from the hand, his heart in his chest hammering painfully. His breath came in tiny, aching parcels. As he watched, the curtain began to tent outward as whatever lay within the berth began to leave its resting space.
Poe’s mouth moved, though no sound came: “Go away. You are dead. You are dead.”
The voice behind the curtain raised an octave, and then another and another, winding to a feline screech.
“Nehhh . . . verrr . . .”
The thing behind the curtain lunged. A thin, pale arm shot forth. The hand was now partially covered in short, black hair like an animal’s, and the fingers were tipped with scimitars of hardened bone. The hand connected with the wood of the wall beneath the curtained area, and the claws at the ends of the fingers pulled splintering rents in the paneling as the hand drew its digits inward. The thing screamed in finality--
Poe stumbled backward, aware that none of the sleepers were stirring around him. He ran for the door (an irate, male voice finally calling out behind him, “Quiet in the sleeping car!”), and he threw himself outside as something white and thin dropped to the floor from its curtained hiding place and slunk quickly toward him.
Slamming the door of the sleeping car carelessly behind him, he ran from car to car, hoping to find a porter, or any other of the train’s personnel. Someone to talk to, someone to cling to. Someone safe. His need for a drink, usually a low-grade fever on the best of days, rose hotly inside him. He thought of running to the dining car and ordering glass after glass of whatever he could afford. Was this not a time that called for something to dull the pain of madness? Did he not deserve to escape in Lethe’s calming waters?
He thought, Yes, and yes, and yes. But, I made a promise!
Poe stopped. He knew he could not go on. He had made a promise, and he meant to keep it. But he could not keep it intact with the strength of his own will. He prayed, helplessly, aware of eyes on him.
Poe opened his own eyes. He saw that he stood in the passenger car he’d started out in. Several people were staring at him. A woman with an infant in her arms pulled the small child closer to her, her eyes never leaving him. He felt movement at his elbow, and jumped, thinking of the thing in the sleeping car. The woman with the baby flinched.
Poe looked and saw the old man sitting in the seat next to him. The man patted the seat.
“Go on and sit down, Mr. Poe. Have a rest and let’s talk.”
Poe prayed again, silently, not knowing what he said or what he prayed for. The old man’s eyes darkened.
“You look like you could use a drink, Mr. Poe.”
A porter entered the passenger car, calling out as he passed though, “Baltimore! Next stop! Baltimore station!”
Poe felt the train begin to slow. A plan began to form in his mind.
The old man said, “Go ahead, Mr. Poe. Go ahead and try it. You can run, but you won’t get far. Or, you can stay and do what I’ve asked, and I’ll provide fair payment.”
The train slowed and came to a halt.
Poe looked to where the old man sat. The old man was gone.
Poe joined a line of passengers making their way to exit the train. He thought of his luggage, still sitting in the baggage car and decided he could do without it. He needed to get away, to escape the phantoms capering about him. He would wire for his baggage and start again once he’d got his head together.
As he stepped onto the platform, he heard a voice, high and childish, call to him from the train.
“That’s right! Run! That’s what you do best!”
Poe turned to the sound and saw a young boy dressed in black clothing standing alone near the entrance of the passenger car. The child had eyes similar to the old man’s, but the madness in them was raw and bleeding. The boy laughed, a wild, dreadful sound that shook the foundations of Poe’s sensibility.
“Run, you traitor! Run, you thief! Run with your dirty coward’s conscience intact! Run to your Master who beats you senseless and tells you it’s for your good and all! Run and see where it gets you, when you could have been happy for the rest of your days! Go and see how the rest of your days are now!”
The thing with the form of a child pulled a face at him that made him flee from the station and into the teeming throngs of the city.
As the writer went, a thought flashed through his mind, over and over: I could have been happy, I could have been happy—why didn’t I just do what he wanted and been happy?
He was moving past the downtown area, heading to a meaner, darker section of town when the answer to his thought occurred to him. Thinking on it fully, he laughed to himself as he passed a group of toughs in a brick-lined doorway that looked after him with predator’s eyes.
For the love of God, he thought. Yes, for the love of God!