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Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…
Three o’clock in the morning found me running through the deserted streets carrying only my cane and brown leather medical bag. The rain swept in curtains across the shiny cobbles, reflected the faint moonlight that peeked at intervals between heavy clouds. The wind from the harbor screeched, October cold, between the buildings of downtown. The gas lamps guided my journey; flickered luminance threw verdurous creeping shadows across the alleyways and shuttered glass frontages of the stores on High Street. My mentor and friend of the last twenty years lay in distress in the parlor of Gunners, a tavern on East Lombard Street, in Baltimore’s seventh ward.
I had been wakened only thirty minutes earlier by a frenzied banging on my door. A small shabby boy stood in the shadows of the stoop holding a penned note that summoned my presence to the inn. The note was addressed to me, Doctor J. E. Snodgrass and read:
“Dear Doctor Snodgrass, there is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Gunners who goes under the cognomen of Edgar, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance.”
Edgar had been found only two hours prior, by the author of the note, a certain William W. Walker. Mr. Walker had found Edgar by chance, lying in the street outside the tavern, soaked, shivering and largely incoherent. Edgar was a stranger to him but thinking him a helpless drunk, and the weather being brutal, had taken pity and helped him into the sanctuary and shelter of the tavern to recover. Between his ramblings, Edgar had given his own name and had gladly retained sufficient wits to provide Walker with my name and address, Edgar’s only friend in the city.
By the time I had received the note summoning me to the Tavern, Edgar had been missing from the world for five days. The last time I had seen him was in Richmond where we had dined at Saddlers on the Friday evening five nights prior. We had both eaten a late dinner and drank lightly, I enjoyed a small beer while Edgar sipped a tea. We discussed his trip to Baltimore where I would join him later in the week. Our conversation betrayed nothing of the coming events. He was light-hearted and spoke with excitement of his recent engagement to Elmira Royster Shelton, a childhood sweetheart who he had met once more, and by chance, in Richmond. Both she and Edgar had both been widowed within the last two years and he seemed happy with the prospect of his forthcoming marriage.
Edgar’s business in Baltimore was to secure some support that had been offered from several local editing companies to publish his works. Despite being a prolific and somewhat successful writer of prose and poetry, Edgar’s finances had suffered recently and the trip would hopefully prove to be a boon and a blessing for him. With dinner complete, we paid, split the checks and left sober. When he had left me to take the night boat to Baltimore, he had been in good spirits. He was dressed in his familiar, smart black wool suit, tall Regent topper, woolen scarf and black leather gloves. This evening he carried a smart silver topped Malacca cane I did not recognize. He was in a hurry, the hour was late and the midnight boat would set sail in forty-five minutes, and the docks were still a carriage ride away. At that time I had no reason to believe that I would not see Edgar in a day or so when we would meet again in Baltimore. I witnessed him step up into the carriage in the late evening mist that chilled our farewells outside Saddlers, I saw his arm wave goodbye, his carriage rounded the corner onto Hill Street and he was gone, vanished and not to be seen again for five long worry filled days.
I arrived at Gunners, winded, out of breath, cold and soaked to the skin. In my haste I had only thought to don my frock coat and it hung off my shoulders and shed rainwater around my feet. The door of the tavern was locked but I could see gas lights were still lit within. Banging on the door roused the landlord, he started at my appearance, as was typical. He was high-colored and angry at both the inconvenience and the hour. After a brief conversation and confirmation of my credentials, he allowed me entry, influenced at least partly, to be done with this unwanted business and get to his bed. The tavern was mostly empty at that hour with only a few smoky gas lights that offered illumination. The landlord introduced me curtly to Mr. Walker, the sender of the note, who had kindly waited for my arrival. He was tall, with friendly blue eyes and animated eyebrows, aged perhaps thirty, well dressed, bespectacled and sporting a neatly trimmed and fashionable Van-Dyck beard. He led me past the bar, littered with glasses and bottles, remnants from the earlier carousing, and into the shadowy parlor located in the rear of the establishment. Walker was animated and excited by the events of the evening. He recounted his tale of stumbling across my friend outside the tavern and helping him into the shelter. He talked quickly, chattering, concerned about both Edgar’s disheveled condition and his disturbed mental acuity. Despite his amenable and expansive demeanor, his words and expression carried more than common concern for a fellow man laid low by some random happenstance, his voice modulated by a timbre of dread.
“Your friend has been saying the strangest things, mostly nonsense for certain, but he speaks of anguish and despair and dark things to be dreaded; I am a man usually blessed with a light heart, a man of science, but I admit his speech this night has disconcerted me.”
The parlor was low ceilinged, dimly lit by a single guttering gas lamp, the creaking cheap pine floorboards spoke of a century of spilt ale and spirits, nauseous at that hour and circumstance. We found Edgar recumbent on two stained dining tables that had been roughly pulled together. The expensive Malacca cane I recognized, it was still by his side, but paradoxically his own clothes were missing. In place of his expensive suit he was now dressed in an ancient stained and tattered bombazine coat ripped at several of its seams, badly fitting black alpaca pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of coarse worn-out and muddy boots run down at the heels, and an old, tattered and ribbon-less palm leaf straw hat.
He was conscious still but muttered quietly to himself, as Walker had predicted, mostly gibberish and nonsense. His usually clear expression was furrowed and grim. Bruises ran across the right side of his face, the side closest to me and Walker, fresh contusions that still bloomed purple and black. His normally groomed and Macassar oil slicked black hair was filthy, wild and tangled. He held his hands in front of his face, repeatedly opened and closed his stained and dirty fingers and occasionally scraped and swiped at his brows as if to swat away some annoyance. His eyes were closed but as I leaned in to better hear and perhaps decipher his incoherence, his body turned slowly toward us, his left eye snapped open, bloodshot sclera with dilated ebony pupil stared wide and intently into a space behind me. A breeze from the casement window flickered the lamp and a chill descended on the room. One blackened finger uncurled a broken nail and followed the gaze that pointed a warning over my shoulder. I turned slowly to look in the direction of the staring eye and pointed finger. In the very fringe of my vision I perceived, rather than saw, a greater blackness within the darksome of the corner behind me, a vagueness that slithered and crawled across my senses. The hairs prickled on my neck, my heart raced and my eyes and ears strained to focus on the movement in their periphery. My body released adrenaline and shortened my breath to a gasp as I fully turned to face the corner; a form, dark and indistinct still lingered there, moved, writhed slowly on the edge of my awareness. As I stared, eyes wide, about to shout and raise the alarm, the shape dispersed, flickered away in the jumping shadows created by the fading lamp, revealed nothing more than an old footstool that leant against the filthy ale soiled corner of the wall behind us. The feeble swinging light from the gas lamp fooled the unreliable and limited evidence of my own senses. My tiredness and the events of the night had intruded on the practicalities of my perception for the briefest of moments.
I turned quickly back to Walker who was still chattering his animated tale without care. He seemed completely unaware of my confusion and agitated state so I shook my head to clear my unsettlement and turned my attention back to Edgar. Poor Edgar had fallen back to the table, barely conscious. He trembled as if in the beginning of a seizure so I asked Walker to quickly help hail me a cab to take us to the local hospital. Walker immediately donned his greatcoat and rushed back outside and I helped Edgar slowly and uncertainly to his feet. The landlord, whose demeanor had not improved, followed us from the parlor and watched us with a grave expression as we stepped out into the rain just as the Hansom turned the corner, a clatter of hooves on the black slick cobbles. He slammed the door behind our backs, pleased and perhaps relieved to be done with our business. From the street we could hear him shout a brusque and unnecessary, “Good night and good riddance!”
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