Edgar arrives in Baltimore by steamship on October 1, 1849. In the bright cold morning, he walks down the gangway on Pier 17 and settles on the dock, looking at the passing scene. He wears the blue gray cadet coat that he’s kept since West Point, now quite frayed. His trousers are similarly tattered, but Edgar’s ramrod posture and lean physique still communicate a noble bearing. He puts down his valise.
Edgar wonders what to do in the six hours he has to spend before catching the train to Philadelphia. He looks across the peninsula to the bay, where the tall masts of the clipper ships on the harbor side remind him of life at sea, and how they may carry huge cargos of tobacco to the Old World. He estimates the distance to the far lighthouse, wondering if he could swim to it, as he had crossed the west pond in Richmond many years ago. Despite his forty years, Edgar figured yes, he could manage it. Across the cobbled road, a black slave waits for his master outside a shipping house. There is bunting hanging from the second story window and a poster of a man in a beard. There is much clamor in the street below. Apparently today is the day of an election. Raymond T. Billington is running for mayor. James Thayer is his opponent.
It’s not easy for Edgar to appreciate the lively beauty of the city: the sparkling bay, the to-and-fro of carriages and horses, the parade of fashionable ladies coming out of the dress shop at the end of the street. And he wonders, as he often has, why this lustrous vista evokes only gloom. He hasn’t had a drink in 41 days, he’s been counting, and he’s held up well. He has even joined the Temperance Society in Richmond, hardly his cup of tea, but a brew he is willing to drink (though he’d prefer a julep), in deference to his fiancé Elmira. Shouldn’t he feel glad at their engagement? After all these years, when she spurned him as a teenager, and now she was eager to have him? Or so it seemed. And she came with a tidy fortune. So onerous errands like the one he was currently embarked upon would no longer be necessary.
Edgar had a strange premonition when he left Elmira in Richmond the day before on the veranda. Some hesitation or coolness in her, even in himself. It was the way he often felt, without a drink, that things were not going to work out, that the final stroke of the blade was nearer than ever, that the moldy odeur of the tomb was close at hand. The persistent melancholy that he’d never been able to understand…it weighed on him like a heavy suit of armor, or like a dense fog, like the tightly wrapped shroud of an entombed Egyptian, in spite of the inspired sun.
The Hop Frog tavern across the street beckons, offering relief.
Courage, he tells himself. He sees the tavern, but resists the temptation, thinking better of it and instead hefting his valise as he moves into the stream of people heading toward the opposite wharf. There, he knows, is the Dorsey Hotel on the far dock, with a nice view of the water. The train station is only ten city blocks away so a decent lunch, with coffee, could lift his spirits. It might cost more than he could afford, but he thinks of the business to be done in Philadelphia and the princely sum he would be paid, and how that would offset the expense, though at the moment he has only ten dollars and the train ticket in his pocket. Buy now and be paid later. And how bad could the errand be? The matron had apparently written 45 poems and had hired Edgar to edit them for a volume to be financed by her doting husband. He had agreed without even reading a sample.
He crosses the cobbled streets to the harbor side of the Peninsula and examines the bill of fare at the Dorsey Hotel. He remembers dining there years ago with his stepfather John Allan, when he was in Allan’s favor – before Allan stopped returning his letters or heeding his desperate pleas for assistance. The she-crab casserole looks appealing, but a sting of conscience passes through him. He sets down the valise once more.
Presently he is aware of another man standing beside him.
“Excuse me sir. I couldn’t help but notice. You seemed to be contemplating a meal at the Dorsey – certainly a pleasure, and indication of good taste, but perhaps a bit expensive.”
Edgar resents the intrusion and the interlocutor’s seeming telepathic powers. He is portly, dressed in a white-tailed coat, has a full handlebar moustache, graying at the ends, a high-topped black hat, and clutches a fistful of advertisements.
“Allow me to suggest the provender at the Hop Frog, a special discount today because of the election. The owner is none other than the brother-in-law of Raymond P. Billington, our candidate much beloved and right thinking. So, half price off a meal and – a free flagon of ale.”
Edgar wonders at the person making this offer. He obviously has the gift of gab, and Edgar suspects that is why he was chosen for this public errand. To pull in business for the tavern, owned by a relative of the candidate. All right then.
Moments later John L. Bonadies, so had the huckster introduced himself, escorts Edgar into the Hop Frog Tavern. The place is alive with activity and boisterous patrons. Flagons of ale are being hoisted by men at the bar and full bosomed waitresses sweep by with trays of food and drink. Edgar is at first overwhelmed by the cacophony, and feels he is definitely sinking to a lower rung of discourse and station, just by being here. But this is not new to him. How familiar, how unfair. And yet the prospect of a cheap meal, to pass the time before his train to Philadelphia, and not to mention a free ale – hard to say no.
Bonadies nods to the bartender and proprietor, the Billington son-in-law, a hulking figure in an apron. He acknowledges the signal and quickly snaps his fingers to the waitress.
“Mary, to the new gentleman who just walked in, if you please.”
Bonadies clears a path through the drinkers at the bar to a favorable table by the window. Mary appears, almost by magic, expertly setting the wooden table and holding back the chair for Edgar to sit.
“Thank you, Mary, this is – didn’t catch your name, sir?”
“The daily special and a flagon of Five Rivers for Edgar, recently arrived on the steamship from Richmond.”
Edgar wonders how the man knows this. He reckons he must have spotted him coming off the ship, and then followed him. He admires Mary’s clear white skin and large brown eyes.
“I can see that you’re an educated man,” says Bonadies. “Rather, I can hear it in your voice. Have you studied abroad?”
Edgar hears bells, suddenly, the bells of the church outside his grammar school in London. At three, just as Latin class was ending. The tintinabulation of the bells, bells, bells….
“When I was young, yes I was very young. A schoolboy merely.”
“And what do you do for a living, if I might ask?”
The man is too curious, thinks Edgar. He waits for the other shoe to drop. What does he want? Certainly, he isn’t recognized…more help with poetry?
“A man of letters, and a poet.”
“A poet. Isn’t that grand? The man is a poet, Mary.” And so Mary brings a tray with a fine spread of turkey and potatoes, and most tempting of all, a finely topped flagon of ale.
Edgar stares at the drink, thinking of the Temperance Society, the ludicrous chairwoman Mrs. Hidegarde and his promises to Elmira. But he realizes that she has no idea what he goes through every day, and that to enjoy a meal without a splash of beer is going a bit far. Edgar takes a long draught.
Bonadies watches him drink and eat.
“Enjoy, enjoy,” he says. Edgar takes another full gulp of ale, and it goes down well.
Half a pint later Edgar feels the mummy’s shroud unwind, the armor fall, the fog lift, allowing the sunlight of giddiness or good cheer. It puts him in a talkative mood.
“Are you a political man, sir?”
“I’d have to think about that.”
“Well, as I said, there’s an election in town. We’re all for Billington. Anyone who knows anything is for Billington. Thayer, on the other hand, is a mountebank, a charlatan, and some even say an abolitionist.”
Edgar shudders. And he notices many comings and goings through a door to a room at the rear of the tavern. Most strangely a man walked into the room dressed as a priest, and emerged some minutes later dressed as a sailor. The men loitering nearby clapped him on the back as he marched to the front door of the tavern, waved to their approval, and ceremoniously left. Others enter and emerge in different costumes as well. Edgar thinks it is some kind of theatrical event.
He observes the chandelier, a crude affair made of elk horns, hanging from the center of the room. He watches Mary slap the grasping hand of a lewd patron as she passes under the chandelier, and he thinks of Tripetta. It was a royal court in the story, not a tavern! Soon these men, these ravenous boors, he would dress them up as orangutans. He would persuade them to do so as an election day joke, they seemed so fond of putting on costumes. Then he would have them do tricks on the chandelier and he would light them on fire. They would end up as a sticky mass of burnt flesh, dripping black blood and ooze. Yes, that would be nice while he and Tripetta hurried out to the Dorsey Hotel.
Edgar has finished his flagon. He holds it up for a re-fill from Mary.
“Not so fast,” says Bonadies.
“You have enjoyed our hospitality, and it has been our privilege, and we’d like to continue to serve and to please. That is our business, that is our pleasure.”
Who is this gasbag? Thinks Edgar. But still…
“A small favor we might ask in return perhaps…”
Just then a drunken merchant walks clumsily by.
“A poet you say?”
“I too am a poet, let me recite:
There was a man from Degrass
Whose balls were made out of brass
In stormy weather he clicked them together
And Lightning came out of his ass.”
“Shut up Montgomery,” says Bonadies. “This is a man of letters. He doesn’t appreciate such vulgarity. I was saying, I told you we had an election going on…”
Edgar always likes a good joke and here he sees no harm. The opponent is an abolitionist, isn’t that what Bonadies said? He had led him through that back door to another room. Here there is a clothes rack with assorted topcoats and costumes and a short little fellow hunched over some kind of ledger. He looks up at Edgar and says what he is wearing was fine. His new name is to be Walter P. Mooney, a farmer on the south side of Ellicot. Can you remember that? Asks the man. Of course. Says Edgar. He knows how to act. He is the son of actors.
Moments later Edgar presents himself to the polling station outside the Post Office. He announces himself as the farmer Walter P. Mooney, is checked off on the roll by the election official and signs the ledger. He proceeds to mark his ballot for Billington and drop it in the box.
Later he is greeted at the Hop Frog like a war hero. He had forgotten the valise, which Mary stored for safekeeping behind the bar. Bonadies squeezes his shoulder and winks at the bartender.
“What’s your pleasure, Edgar?”
“How about — a julep”
“Coming right up.”
Edgar looks to Mary and thinks of his mother. His memories of her were few but intense. The same wide eyes and pale unblemished skin. So beautiful, and he remembered the musky smell of her makeup, and the stuffiness of the dressing room that she shared with the other players. Edgar would sit in the corner, in a sailor suit, playing with her fake pearls, while she prepared, applying lipstick and rouge, putting on spangled costumes, practicing her funny speeches. And then a man would take him to the front row and let him watch the performance. She took on a magic aspect, captivating the audience. In one play she always died, every night, killing herself while another actor, her lover, apparently, also committed suicide. A smudge of blood. That had taken her away when he was five, blood coughed into her handkerchief. The memory of the dressing room lingers, and perhaps that’s why he feels this impromptu costume parlor so familiar. I can be a soldier, I can be a priest, I can be gentleman educated in the east… bells, the bells from Christo’s square in London, and mourning bells for his brother Henry, died of drink at the age of twenty-three.
Yes, he had beaten the rest of the boys in the swimming race across the west lake at UVI. The first university of the republic started by Thomas Jefferson. These boors, these vulgarians, who had no conception of poetry or Europe, who had not been previously educated in Europe, used to give him a rough time. Reading Cervantes, Edgar, they’d say. What a bore! How about a pistol duel? And then laugh, and invite him into the poker game, which he accepted to be part of the crew. Lost badly and had to borrow from his stepfather to pay the debts. Soon he knew it was not a crew worth being part of. So, he beat them in swimming. He had that over them, though he refused to fight the duel.
To the lighthouse… the one across the bay in Baltimore. Coincidentally that is the unfinished story in his valise, The Lighthouse. But they say it may have been built on clay and would certainly topple in a gale, leaving the seasick sailors lost and ready for wrecking and death. Everyone is headed for the rocky shore in their own time… as you used to think that everyone’s neck is already locked in his own guillotine. The blades were released long ago. They were on their way.
“But this man is a real poet.”
“No drunken limericks…please.”
By five in the afternoon Edgar had been to the polling place six times. Now he arrives in the sailor’s uniform, laughing, jaunty, many mint juleps later. Just in on leave from the frigate Ullalume . Another vote for Billington.
But one official, a man representing Thayer, is suspicious.
“Wait, sir. You say you are a sailor?”
“Yes. From the Ullalume. We’re in port loading tobacco. I live here when not at sea.”
“So, could you tell me, if you are a sailor, what the word “aft” means on a ship?”
“Hah… of course. It means the stern of the ship, toward the back. Any sailor knows that.”
The official is annoyed at this correct reply. He looks down at the signature and reluctantly nods his head.
Edgar had thought about going to sea as a youth. Later he even told people that he had worked on a whaler. He liked to make up the stories. One time he did cross the Atlantic with his stepfather and mother and return, in diminished circumstances. But his stepfather, John Allan eventually disowned him. Hated his penchant for literature. Had no love. Never had love. Only took him in because his wife was a theatregoer who pitied the orphaned boy, the five-year-old son of the actress who played Juliet so movingly and then died. But Mrs. Allan, also died of consumption when he was sixteen, just like his mother. Red stain, red blood on lace, the consumption. You are cordially invited to the Masque of the Red Death. And then Mr. Allan kicked him down the road like an old empty flagon. I did not send you to the UVI to read Cervantes.
A bladed pendulum, swinging, closer and closer to his neck like the telltale heart of a black cat.
At midnight he sat in the corner of the bar in the clothes of a railroad man. His shirt was unbuttoned, and his speech was slurred.
“Ann, or Mary…perhaps. My Tripetta. Come here.”
She is cleaning up the tables, putting away the chairs. He looks up at the chandeliers, hoping to see the cremated bodies of the boors and libertines, the charred rags of their orangutan costumes from the royal court. When he removes his glasses, the chandelier begins to whirl like a merry-go round. The men hang on, suspended in their furry costumes, hands clutching the antlers, waving, giggling with delight. One of them is Bonadies. Another is Bullington, the bartender, and John Allan, may his soul rot in a lice infested sepulcher for all eternity and his guts be devoured by ravenous cats.
A wonderful game. The royal Court of the Hop Frog King.
Edgar lights the match and the flames leap in a glorious conflagration. The spinning men catch fire, morph into burnt flesh.
“The evil that men do.” Like the time he had to dispose of his aunt Muddy’s slave. He was a strong young Negro but ate like a horse and Muddy couldn’t afford to feed and clothe him. She could barely afford to do so for herself or Edgar. She’d inherited the man from an uncle. It was up to Edgar to sell him. They needed money badly. So he found a blacksmith in South Charlotte who gave him forty dollars. Muddy was pleased.
“My name is Mary.”
“Let me call you Tripetta. I missed my train. Was it three days ago?” He clutches the ticket, now creased and useless. “Do you know that I am a poet?”
“So, they say…like that Longfellow fellow?”
“Longfellow is a fool. He is a plagiarist. He is not a poet. He is a wag and a cad and a charlatan of letters. A Charlemagne of letters.”
“But he is our most famous poet, except for that one who wrote The Raven.”
“Ah. You are too sweet. I want to marry you. I want you to be my wife. You know The Raven, don’t you? A few lines I may have taken from Browning…just borrowed a bit from Browning. It’s all one great poem, one great epic.”
“Nevermore,” she said.
Some weeks earlier, he had been invited to speak and present a new poem to an assembly in Rhode Island. He had nothing new in him, so pawned off an old verse he’d written when he was fourteen. Unable to maintain the lie, he confessed at the reception afterwards. The councilmen were appalled and insisted he return half the fee.
If only John Allan had given him the assistance he needed.
“It’s Ok to borrow now and then,” said Tripetta.
“Will you take me home with you?”
“But what about Elmira?”
“Somehow, that will never… And she must give up more than half her fortune to marry me, because of the codicil in her deceased husband’s will. The lighthouse at the end of the island, do you know it is built on clay? They didn’t tell the lighthouse keeper. They said he could live there for as long as he liked, and write, and simply… Yes, you will go there with me. Virginia is dead. So now… You come with me to the lighthouse. We will weather every storm. You will help me to do so.”
“You are crazy mister, you need sleep. You have deep blue circles under your eyes.”
“It was many a many a year ago in a kingdom by the sea…Bells, bells, bells. They wanted to publish my verse when I was fourteen but thought it would go to my head…Hah.! I was five when she died, but I remember her eyes, and the musk of her makeup, and the small white cameo she wore around her neck, which somehow, I lost though it was one of the few objects I truly cherished. Her tenderness, I’ll never forget. We always lose what we value, somehow… That’s why the alternative…. it’s near… I can feel it…the pendulum and the guillotine. And if not those blades, the maelstrom.
“Here’s your valise. No more to drink for you.”
“The bartender’s gone home.”
“Then can you mix it? I liked the election game. I don’t give a damn about Billington but abolition is not a good idea. I always like pretending to be someone else, because… I never felt bottom. But now I will feel bottom soon enough. The lighthouse is built on clay! The storm is on its way. The blade released…Tick tock. I will be famous after I die. I will be the most celebrated American author on the continent, where I am understood.
“I’m going home.”
* * *
That evening Edgar leaves the Hop Frog, clutching his valise. He walks unsteadily through the fog that has settled on the waterfront. His clothes seem even more tattered than before. He stops to adjust his cravat. But it’s not there. He is still in the outfit of the railroad man but can’t remember exactly how he got that way. He can see only twenty feet ahead. The faint wail of a distant foghorn.
Four men emerge from the gloom. One of them is the Election Official. He is flanked by three goons, off-duty policemen.
“Ah, the sailor!” says the Election Official. He smiles. “Not on shipboard right now, eh? Let me see, now he works for the railroad. A man of many talents!”
Edgar stares back through the fog. Who are these men? Am I back in the royal court of the King in Hop Frog? The Official nods to his mates.
“Voted more than once, I reckon, and for that scoundrel Billington. That’s a criminal offense. But we’ll handle it right now.”
The policemen draw their clubs as they approach.
* * *
“I am his friend, summoned by a woman who found him comatose and beaten in a waterfront alley. He’s a poet. He was due in Philadelphia three days ago.”
“He’s in a bad way. I will do what I can. I know his poetry.”
* * *
A white tie affair. The walls are white, the bedding is white, the people around me wear white. They speak, but I cannot understand what they are saying. They murmur, and then disappear like ghosts.
The white curtains billow. I sit up in my shroud. It’s very close now. A step away. Through the curtains, the lighthouse. Tripetta is already there. She dabs her face with a bit of rouge. I go forth.
“Death of a Poet” was orginally published in The NonBinary Review in 2017.
Guy Prevost is a film/TV writer currently living in Los Angeles. His background encompasses work as a development executive in the movie business, college teacher, and fiction writer. His short stories have appeared in SQ Mag (contest prizewinner), The NonBinary Review, the North Atlantic Review, The London Reader, Dark Aesthetic Anthology, and elsewhere. guyprevost.com.