©2023 - All rights held by the author
Testing, testing. Madame Levant, may I speak with my own voice for a moment? Ah, that’s better. Thank you kindly.
Now, I understand one of you has posed the question of how I really died. Although it pains me to reveal the embarrassing details, I suppose I am custom-bound by the ritual of the séance, aren’t I? Very well. At the very least, I shall disabuse you of any misconceptions someone else may have provided in explanation. They couldn’t possibly know. How could they? I carried the secret to my grave. Prepare yourselves, for it is a tale of mystery and the macabre.
September had only just succumbed to October’s cool gusts and tempting smells that evening in 1849 when I set out from Richmond to my home in New York, stopping for a meeting in Annapolis. My contact there, a student society leader, had promised a hefty subscription fee to my forthcoming literary magazine, the Stylus, and I was in dire need of an infusion of funds. Alas! Had the devil kept his promise to meet at the designated time and place, I might have lived to see my 41st birthday. But fortune had smiled its last upon me.
Ah! I hear your hypotheses as to how I met my fate, misinformed by that scurvy boor Griswold, no doubt. You’ll never be entirely correct. Suicide? Only in some tangential way. Rabies? Bosh! A love of cats ought to count as an indication of one’s being less mad than the average artist! Syphilis? If I had contracted it, the disease surely would have taken its full toll much later. Drink? Now you’re getting warmer. To be sure, drink was involved. Influenza, you say? Well, yes, that’s closer to the truth still. I was in such a state when I arrived at the hospital. But one might also attribute my ultimate demise to the following: destiny, fear, and Reynolds.
Ahem. Let us return to the tale at hand. In the two years since the loss of my beloved Virginia, I had taken up with waxing enthusiasm two pastimes: women and the occult. I visited both sorts of madams.
I did not wish to dishonor the memory of my deceased wife, but my attempts at courtship after her early exit had failed miserably and a man’s desires do not cease when he finds himself untethered by wifely bonds. Indeed, perhaps the women I courted in those two years could sense a looming wrongness about me. Perhaps they knew of the unfortunate tendency of the women in my life to meet their ends prematurely, or, like my Sarah in Richmond, could not abide the pauper’s life I could offer. I found myself utterly alone.
Meanwhile, I did my best to bridge the gap between myself and my dear Virginia. Through the mechanisms of séances such as this one at which we find ourselves, I beseeched her to contact me through the ether. I begged, cajoled, demanded, lamented. Nothing seemed to reach her. And though I must admit my outreach failed in its chief goal, it was not without some consolation prize. For, as I sat at the medium’s table night after night, another spirit sought me out. Reynolds.
Reynolds was not a vengeful ghost or an evil spirit. In fact, he seemed quite amiable. Nonetheless, he haunted me just the same. Night after night, he’d plunge into the medium’s body and tell me, in no uncertain terms, how dreadfully sorry he was for his role in my doom. How a dead man could bring about my death, he couldn’t explain.
Reynolds, a Colonist, had been laid to rest long before I was born. But he said he sensed a figurative kinship with me and we passed the madam’s time becoming acquainted. He said he felt obligated to warn me of my death in headlines: COMING SOON! But the warning, he said, could not be of the sort that allows the doomed to escape his fate.
“Terribly sorry, you understand. Rules and all. Care for a game of dice or cards? Shame to waste the time and I have so missed the common pursuits of the living.”
I obliged, hoping to glean more insight into the other world and my own transition to it. The jolly spirit and I drank to the sweet memories of life and shuddered together at the loneliness of the abyss. The harder I pressed him for details about the latter, however, the more grim a visage he imposed on our medium.
Only once, by sheer luck, was I able to pry out any further information about my fate. The whiskey had finally done its job of loosening his lips and he let slip that, had he a choice, he would give me more than two years.
Well. As I couldn’t—according to him—avoid my fate, it made no sense to go about life any differently except, perhaps, to leave as many stories behind as possible. I wrote feverishly and drank feverishly as well, owing to my disturbed thoughts.
I was in this mindset as that crisp October day arrived. Meeting canceled, I found myself alone in Annapolis, looking out to the ships from behind a veil of disappointment. My funds were low, my time brief, and my last cerebral exercise had been a review of the utterly pretentious James Fennimore Cooper. James Fenni-bore Cooper, had one asked me! My feet directed me up the street to a tavern, where I began the process of numbing myself before meeting the train.
“Buy a lady a drink?”
I was startled by a blond in a black straw hat arranging her skirts on the stool nearest mine. From her imperfect lipstick to her somewhat clumsy manner and dirty black bombazine mourning attire, I assessed her to either be farther down the path to inebriation than I or farther down the social ladder. On either account, I was happy to oblige with what little I had in my pocket. Her eyes met mine as she raised the amber-filled glass giddily to her lips.
“Another!” she shouted minutes later, batting her deep sky-blue eyes at me and pouting with her lips, red as roses. Our glasses were filled, and filled again. The stranger proved herself a capable drinker that evening and she refused to imbibe alone. As the night wore on, she oh-so-innocently inquired of the barkeeper if he had rooms to let for the night. As luck would have it, he did.
My companion had to help me up the stairs, so far gone was I. I must have fallen asleep quite easily, as I have no further recollection of the night’s events. In retrospect, I can tell you that was no coincidence. What transpired up those old wooden steps I later pieced together when I had sobered the next day.
I awoke to the ungodly clang of church bells, pealing in my ears like hammer blows. In that moment, God seemed likened to a sadistic upstairs neighbor, dropping large objects to disturb those unfortunates below. My stomach churned from the night’s drinking; my head nearly burst in a vice of pain. The woman from the night previous had gone, along with my clothing and wallet, containing my train ticket. Left behind were the following: one wig; one straw hat; a lady’s coat, shirt, skirt and pantaloons; one tube of scarlet lipstick; and one shaving kit. On the desk, a short note bore one word only: “Sorry.”
Clutching the paper in hand, I stared at it, dumbstruck. As I slowly began to understand my current predicament, my eyes drifted upwards to the letterhead topping the stationery. It read, “Compliments of Reynolds Tavern, est. 1747.”
Shocked, I dropped the missive. Reynolds! Reynolds! Stupid Poe! I chided myself. Had my drooping head only read the sign over the door the night previous, I would have given the establishment a wide berth, rest assured! I gave the bed leg such a kick it splintered. Then I collapsed, wailing in anguish. Although I could see no immediate danger, a foreboding washed over me. Seeing the name in print, on the foretold year of my death, I felt the gears of fate set into motion. I felt the walls close in around me, pressing the air from my throat. I cowered there in a curled ball, dreading the hands of Death reaching toward me unseen from all directions. I commenced to stammer the word “no” until I was forced to edit myself and insist on at least begging for my life with some eloquence.
“Dear Lord, I beg you! Whatever you should ask of me, I promise it shall be done!” I entreated. “Shall I dedicate my life to the Church? Shall I write missives on your behalf? Tell me! Anything! Only tell Death to stay his hand a little longer! Let this message contain no deeper meaning!” I shouted. Alas! These prayers were met with the same silence as my attempts to contact Virginia in the spirit realm.
I tried another route. “Reynolds!” I cried. “Help me, sir! Help! I have seen your name and fear your prophecy has begun its machinations! Help me, or rid my thoughts of your awful portents!”
A loud rap at the door came then, sending a shudder through my body. I held my breath. Moments later, another.
“Sir! Wake up, sir! The room needs to be cleaned. It’s check-out time, sir!” a man’s voice informed me loudly through the door. I let my breath out. No specter, only the innkeeper. Then a new fear overtook me. I was stranded, nude and penniless, with the innkeeper soon to throw me out into the street for want of a second night’s payment. Though doomed, I yet desired to escape this wretched place.
Casting my eye about the room, I landed on the dress.
“I beg your pardon, kind sir,” I shouted through the door. “A lady is present. Will you please allow her a few more minutes to make herself presentable before vacating? I thank you kindly.”
“Very well,” came the voice. “I shall return at the ring of the half-hour bell,” the voice said. I heard heavy steps descend the stairs.
Quickly, I put on the mourning garb. It was a flouncy, lacy affair, once pretty but now rather grimy. Next, I donned the wig, careful to tuck in the last of my black locks. In the mirror, I bade farewell to my mustache and applied the scarlet lipstick. I made a sorry excuse for a woman, but if the devil from last night had fooled me, perhaps I could fool someone else and rob him of enough to secure a ride to Baltimore, where I had lived in my twenties and still had numerous contacts.
I found a pair of slippers under the bed and crept quietly down the stairs. At the bottom, I dashed out unseen.
How I passed the day is unimportant. I suppose I wandered the streets. Having met with no question as to my gender, I was emboldened to put my plan into practice.
As the sun sank into the western sky, I copied the attack of my attacker. I returned to the tavern and spotted a modestly dressed, kind-eyed fellow sitting alone at the bar. He smiled at me as I batted my eyes and agreed to a drink.
One drink turned into five. I dared to hope that my plan was working. It had to. As he paid the last round, I leaned in close to whisper the merits of a private room upstairs, but to my dismay I saw the poor man’s final dollar spent on the whiskey. Disappointed, I bade him a hasty farewell and cast about for another sucker.
In a corner stood a large man with a golden watch chain, a bulging waistcoat and a lecherous eye. I approached him.
“What a pretty lady we have here!” he commented, ogling my non-existent breasts through the bombazine. “How’d you like to join me for a drink, my sweet?”
“Only if you’ll have one with me as well, sir,” I said, nearly forgetting to mask my voice in a falsetto.
My new mark was certain to have the money required to carry out my plan, that was obvious. He also very much desired the attentions of a lady, as evidenced by his inappropriate and increasing touches. With my goal held steadfastly in mind, I chided the boor flirtatiously, spinning coquettishly away from his paws, dipping under his giant arms, pretending my only complaint to be public decorum. The beast had me at a disadvantage, though.
As you may be aware, drunkenness affects small bodies more quickly than large ones. Being a head taller and several belt sizes wider than I, the fellow showed no change in bearing after the first tumbler-full. Coupled with my head start in consumption, I could see that I would surely lose in a head-to-head drinking competition.
Thinking myself clever, I spilled my next drink and sought to delay its refill by urging the man instead to demonstrate again how quickly he could knock back the amber fire with a single flick of the wrist. But he soon observed my empty glass and insisted upon its refill.
With dread, I sensed my capacity for lucid speech and balanced movement waning. Drawing on my last reserves of clarity, I begged an end to the drinking and instead proposed a visit to the tavern’s bed chambers. It was a mighty risk I took, and I braced for a devastating encounter should the gentleman discover what waited for him under the dress before succumbing to his tiredness. Worse, what if my body, once revealed, proved no hindrance to the lecher’s lustful intentions?
Though it required great concentration, I revised my plan.
I led the fellow upstairs, dancing away with every grope and grasp. In the room above, I feigned shyness and begged him to undress first behind a screen standing before a window. When my turn came, I quietly opened the window and gathered the man’s clothing and wallet into a bundle. I threw off my skirt and leaned out to survey my escape route.
“Hurry, darling!” the man shouted from the bed.
“Almost ready!” I replied over my shoulder, easing a leg through the window as quietly as I could.
No sooner had my second leg and other appendages followed suit, then I was forced to dodge a pair of enraged arms.
“Stop! Thief!” I heard at my back as I sprang to a lower porch roof and then to the ground, bundle under one arm. Heedless of the pain caused by my landing, I ran from that establishment as if my soles were lit from below by a fire from Hell.
My legs (under protest) conveyed me to a carriage and my tongue managed to utter “Baltimore” to the driver. I collapsed on the seat, forgetting to don the man’s clothing but somehow discarding the blond wig while retaining the hat.
I would like to say that was the end of my story; that my delivery to Baltimore would prove an effective escape from my curse. But the night was cold and my body, weakened by intoxication and adrenaline, succumbed to fever during the ride. By the time we reached Baltimore, my ability to recall any friend’s address had become an impossible task.
The driver paid himself handsomely from the pilfered wallet and deposited me at a bar, from which I was summarily evicted when I began ranting and demanding audience with my friend Snodgrass. From there, I stumbled to Lombard Street, searching desperately for Snodgrass’ house, though after so many years and in my clouded mental state, I was convinced that every rowhouse looked familiar and I began to ring every doorbell I encountered.
A kind soul found me delirious on the sidewalk and brought me to a hospital, where I clung to life for half a week in a section reserved for drunks. In my fever dreams, Reynolds appeared in Death’s shrouds, bearing the dreaded scythe and shaking his head as I implored him once more for help.
“Reynolds,” I pleaded, barely noticing the confused looks on the doctors’ faces behind the billowing shroud only I could see.
“Dreadfully sorry,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s time.”
“To whom are you speaking? Where have you been? Who did this to you?” asked the doctors.
“Reynolds,” I repeated in answer to every question.
The fever refused to abate. The specter stood watch, like a vulture biding its time.
Haunted now with every intake of breath, every beat of my heart, I rejected the attending physician’s attempts to cheer me, telling him I preferred a meeting with a bullet to one with a friend. Ironic, I am aware, that my desperation to live had worn my nerves down to such an extent—death seemed then the only escape from the terror that had taken hold of me for days.
In the early hours of October 7, I relented to Reynolds, to Death, to the abyss. My terror abated little by little as I allowed my body to cool (colder and colder), permitted my heart to stop beating. Gradually, my soul became one with the world around me. The prophecy had been fulfilled. I somberly allowed Reynolds to escort me beyond the realms of worldly cares.
Oh! Dry your eyes, my friends! Parting is such sweet sorrow, as they say, but I’ve found the afterlife suits me. And now I’m afraid I must return Madame Levant to her corporeal being. I hope your curiosity has been satisfied as to how I shuffled off this mortal coil, for it is time now to fare thee well. Do not weep for me. We shall meet again in the ether!