Being the tale of a man, infirm with a hereditary condition, who in his hubris seeks to stave off death a little while longer and who will pay a price too heavy for any mortal soul to bear. A gothic melodrama in several parts.
The only sound in the room was the ticking of the clock on the mantle. I sat at the small table by the window, resting my hands on my knees. I was nervous. I’d been told that that was my nature, and I freely admit to that. I was always the kind to be worried, to think on things too much, to obsess over unkindnesses done to me, turn over imagined slights in my mind. It is not a becoming feature, but I flatter myself I have found success despite it. Now, my old childhood fears returned. The doctor, a man I had known all my life, stood on the other side of the room, at his cabinet. He took out two glasses and a bottle. Brandy. He was my father’s age – or rather, the age my father would have been – stout but hale, with great white whiskers and a fat purple nose. This was his sitting room, and it testified to his wealth and renown. The finest physician in London. I could never have afforded his services, but he had known my family for many years. He was a friend, of a kind, although I suppose I thought of him as more of a kindly uncle.
He poured generous measures of the fine brandy into the large round glasses and then brought them over to me. He took a seat opposite and swirled the golden liquid around the glass. The smell was almost overpowering. I had never had the constitution for strong drink, which he knew all too well, and I knew he had given me this to soften the blow. I knew the news would be bad. My heart beat faster in my chest, and the tightness in my lungs returned. The gilded clock continued to tick-tock, filling the room with its sound, as the brandy filled it with its burning reek. I picked up the glass and swallowed. It made me cough, further punishing my weakened body, but I kept it down. It burnt as it made its way to my stomach, a fiery reminder that, for all my dread, I was still alive. The brandy tasted of nothing but alcohol, but I took another sip.
“I knew your father as a boy,” the doctor said to me. He was still swirling his brandy. “When we were both boys, in fact. We were great friends.”
“I know, Doctor Callow.”
“He was much like you, you know. The same incisive mind, the same kindness and sensitivity to others. Some called him weak.”
“He was weak,” I said sadly.
“Physically, yes. As are you. But you knew this. You’ve been sickly all your life, James.”
I nodded. As a child I’d spent the better part of a year bedridden. At school, I had played no sports, and spent winters sheltering indoors, watching the other boys run through the snow, pelting one another with snowballs, leaping over walls, laughing and shouting. It had been made clear to me, over all the years of my life, that I was a frail creature, suited more to books and dust than wine and song.
“Your father died young,” Callow continued, “only a few years older than you are now. Your grandfather…the same.”
“So I’m told.”
He placed his glass down on the table and leant towards me. “You’re a learned man, James. You know the science of hereditary.”
Another pale nod from me. I felt my shoulders, shrunken and sloped at the best of times, fall. I wished only to crawl into myself, for I knew I faced my doom.
“It’s the heart,” Callow explained, reaching across and tapping a thick, pink finger against my narrow chest. “Weak hearts run in your family, James. The business of life is too taxing for your line, I’m sorry to say. That is the cause of your current infirmity. It is catching up with you, this curse in your blood.”
I had to give a cold laugh at his bald pronouncement of my unfortunate fate. His examinations had been most thorough, but I suspect he had already known what he would find. As I did, truly. But I came to him, I could now admit to myself, because he was not a man to mince his words. He would give me the truth, unadorned, as it ought to be. “So…I will die as my father did?”
Callow sipped his brandy and bared his white, even teeth as he swallowed. “You’re engaged to be married, aren’t you, James?”
I was surprised at the change of subject. “Y…yes.”
“Who is the girl?”
“Marjory Pym. A broker’s daughter.”
“I believe I know her family. A fine girl, I’m sure.”
My pale cheeks coloured slightly. “Very fine, doctor. We’re to be married in three months. That is…unless…”
“I cannot tell you if you’ll live to be married, James.” His voice had softened, and I sensed a great sadness in him. Well, he had been my father’s friend. He had known my grandfather too. He had seen both my sires die of this same weakness. As a healer, it must pain him to see the same story repeated, knowing he was powerless to help.
“I will get weaker,” I said, “and die. Soon.” It was as if the shadows in the room had grown darker and more menacing. The hands of death, reaching out from behind the closed drapes before the window, clawing towards me, inexorably. They had always been there. Death comes to all men, does he not? And yet, which of us truly believes that we too will die? It is the tragedy of youth, that our sense of immortality is wasted when we are most foolish, least able to appreciate it, and as the icy grip of inevitable doom closes in, we desperately cling to the days left to us, growing weaker. It was a cruel twist of fate that I should simply have been old before my time, and therefore doomed to likewise die before my time. I had never known the flush of youth. I would never feel immortal.
“There is a chance,” Callow said softly.
I looked up. “I beg your pardon?”
“A small chance.” He didn’t look at me. His eyes were averted, even, concentrating on a spot on the wall. His fingers played with the stem of the glass, almost nervously it seemed to me.
“What chance?” I knew I should know better than to let myself be seized by sudden hope, but I was thinking of Marjory. I was thinking of our wedding, and the life we could share. She was more than I deserved, and more than I had ever dreamed of. She was, truth to tell, my only reason for living.
“There is someone who might help you. Understand,” he said, turning his gaze back to me, “if there was a way I could save you, James, I would. I would do it myself. But there is no cure for your condition. No salve or unguent I could give you, no surgery I might perform. It is simply your nature. Your muscles are slack and weak. Your heart has not the strength to pump your blood around your own body. But I know of a woman…”
“She may be able to help you. I have heard rumours of her skills. She has…knowledge…”
“A cure?” I was excited, daring to think this could be the answer I sought. I realised, sitting here, that I had always known I was destined for an early grave. My nerves were all down to that creeping dread I had felt all my life. It seemed so simple now, and the notion that that Sword of Damocles that had ever hung over me could somehow be removed changed me instantaneously.
“Not precisely a cure, James.” I could tell he was measuring his words. Perhaps he didn’t want to get my hopes up. “But…there is a chance, if you secure her services, that all will be well. That you will go on living, and marry your sweetheart. Have sons of your own, and hope whatever hex that lies on your bloodline is extinguished in them.”
His words were heavy with portent. I realised then that he had only brought this up at the end of need. That, as a physician, he did not condone what he was about to suggest. Indeed, that whatever might follow could be dangerous in the extreme. But the fire had kindled within me now. I had been given, for the first time in my life, a glimmer of hope for the future.
The doctor reached for his notebook that rested on the table by his side. He produced a pen and quickly scrawled an address. He ripped off the page and handed it to me. “Here.”
I clutched it, like a life raft. I did not know the place, but I would find it. “Thank you, doctor,” I said.
“Don’t thank me, James. It may yet be no good to you. I told you it was a chance, nothing more.”
I stood up. Since my latest illness had taken me I walked with a cane, though I wasn’t yet thirty. Now I felt like jumping for joy, like running as the boys at my school had done all those years ago. That was pure fantasy, but I felt lighter than air. I picked up the brandy glass and swallowed all that remained. I laughed as I replaced it, empty, on the table. It burned my tortured chest again and my poor, fragile heart, perhaps counting down its last beats even as I stood there, elated, throbbed within me. “I will go to this place at once,” I announced, brandishing the note.
“Tomorrow, James. The hour is late.” He pointed to the clock. It ticked and the minute hand moved with an audible creak. My time was running short, but I had been granted a reprieve at last.
I had lived in London for most of my life. Though I was schooled in the country, it was to this great city that I had returned home each holiday, and which had sheltered me in my professional life. My father had been a banker. When he died, I had come into an inheritance much larger than I’d imagined for, like me, he had relied on wits and reason when his strength failed. He had invested wisely. And so I too had dabbled in finance – by which means I had come to know Mr Pym and his family, including my beloved Marjory – but later found myself drawn towards art and literature. I was a fair painter, but a better writer, and there were publishers in the city who had expressed admiration for my work. They had asked me to forward them any complete works I should produce, with an eye to selling them in the future. Alas, my infirmity had robbed me of what ambition I had had. My stories and poetry sat unfinished, and I could hardly bear to look at them now. There were so few days when I might manage any useful industry and what I now produced on these occasions rarely pleased me.
I thought of the future as I hobbled through the streets. I was not wealthy, despite the dividend I had been left. So much of that had gone on lodgings and medicines of various kinds. Callow charged me nothing, but others in his profession were not so generous. I had to husband my resources if I intended to keep a home with Marjory. She was a fine young woman, from a good family, and I would have to retain a household. It would be a modest affair, as she knew, but I was a gentleman, and she must be treated as a lady accordingly. I must be healthy. I must be able to write again. And what money I still had would go on this mysterious treatment Callow had directed me towards. No hansom cab for me then. I would walk, no matter how it taxed my lungs and heart.
I did not know this part of London. It was far outside my preferred environs, in the dark, smoky passages of some poor district or other. The walls were black with soot, and I must look a likely target for any villains as I limped along. I had not thought my coat and hat fine until I saw the jealous eyes of the ruffians peering out at me from glum, winding alleys. Their clothes were ragged and worn. There were women, pale-skinned with missing teeth, who favoured me with a smile as I passed. I tipped my hat instinctively, thinking that perhaps they thought me handsome, but after I walked on a way I realised with a start what business they intended with me. I hurried on as fast as I could. The deprivation grew worse as I continued, and I felt as if I were crawling deeper into a ruinous nest of vermin. This was not the London I knew. This was a place of looming, unlovely brick houses: blank-faced sentinels piercing a smoggy sky, where the feckless and filthy made their noisome lairs. The squalls of unwashed urchins filled the choking air and the buoyancy that had carried me from Callow’s home back to my own lodgings and had brought me this far, bobbing gently in a haze of renewed lust for life, now deserted me. I longed for nothing more than flight – to run screaming from this place of darkness and terror, to leave these wretches to their poverty and reek, but I couldn’t. A sprint would kill me, I knew. My only choice was to go on, deeper, to see what awaited me.
At last, I reached the house. My breath was rasping in my throat and I felt again as if my heart would burst from my chest. My hands, never steady, now trembled like pale branches in the wind. My legs felt as if they would cease their long-held support of me at any moment. I rested against the sill of the window nearest the door. This was a narrow street, otherwise deserted, with the same gloomy houses all about. This one had little to distinguish it. Another heap of dour brick, packed in with all the rest, but the windows were fastened and the drapes drawn tightly closed. The door seemed heavier, more solid, and unlike the others on this cursed avenue, freshly painted, black as night. A knocker hung, in black iron, and I fastened my hand about it nervously. I looked this way and that, up and down the street, as if I might be watched. I felt, for a reason I could not explain, as if I were involving myself in something illicit. Some ancient instinct, perhaps, warned me of the danger beyond this ominous portal. Plaintively, hardly daring to breathe, I rapped the knocker.
Somewhere within, a sonorous boom sounded. I jumped back, startled, and almost lost my balance. Just in time I reached out with my cane and steadied myself against the cobbles. I looked up then, panting, to see the door begin to open. No figure stood to greet me, and I could discern no method by which it had opened. It only creaked ajar, leaving in its place a yawning chasm no less black than the door itself. I hesitated. The fear, familiar to me from all my life so far, had returned, but now multiplied a hundredfold. Had Doctor Callow known of this mysterious and dread threshold? If so I understood his reluctance to advise me to come here. Who would dwell in this dark place? And yet, I thought of what I had allowed myself to dream of this past night. Of Marjory and the books I had yet to write. What was a little darkness beside that golden hope? I steeled myself as I never had before, and walked into the shadowy interior of the ghastly building.
I stood in the blackness, shaking still, and then a sound like a ticking came from somewhere above my head. I turned and saw the door begin to close behind me though I was alone. I tried to turn, but again my frailty betrayed me and I could only watch as the dim light of the outside world was shut out, and I was plunged into abyssal night. I stood motionless, as good as blind, wondering what I should do now. I could force the door and affect an escape, but I doubted I had the strength for that. I could forge on, pawing my way through this absolute darkness, but that was a horror that turned my stomach. So I waited. I could not believe the doctor would send me to my death, not when death already awaited me so greedily. How much time passed in that void I cannot say. I think perhaps only moments, but with no frame of reference save my own pounding heart, I could not truly tell. But, however long it was, I began to perceive a lightening further down the hallway. I realised this corridor must be very long indeed – much longer than this building had any right to hold – for the light came from a very great distance. Soon, I could make out lamps set along the wall. Ordinary glass bulbs set with wicks and a smoky flame of paraffin dancing above each. They were coming towards me, each lighting in turn. I heard the ticking again, the sound of gears and cogs moving. I opened my eyes wide, for I then understood that they were controlled by some secret mechanism, whose workings I could hear. As the wavering yellow light filled the hall and at last illuminated me, I looked around. The walls were bare whitewashed plaster, and the floor unadorned boards. The corridor stretched ahead to an end I could not see, and there were no doors or passages branching off – just a long, empty white passage. I turned to look at the door, and saw above it a clockwork assemblage. I wanted to laugh at my own stupidity – to fear the infernal power of some spirit or warlock, when it was nothing but a trick. And yet, as I peered more closely, my terror returned, for I had never seen a mechanism so finely wrought, so intricate and complex. I knew much of the world, but the workings of this door were like nothing I had seen. Each golden cogwheel and spring a work of art, each gear and lever shaped with such delicacy that they seemed grown rather than made.
The light nearest me went out suddenly. I spun as fast as I could with my cane. The lamps around me were turning out with a screech of machinery, following the same path back to their source, far ahead. I had no wish to be in the dark again and so I rushed on as quickly as my body would allow me, following the failing lights to the end of this hall. I had no inkling of what I might find, but as I stumped along the floorboards, my progress making strange echoes, I was followed by the inexorable ticking of the clockwork.