All told, after my mother died it took about eighteen months for things to fall apart. My sister survived, thanks to the priceless ministrations of Mrs. McGuire, who was as a mother to the child for the first year of her life, after which she was weaned and I tentatively assumed the duty. It was unanimously agreed that the baby should be named for her mother, whom she uncannily resembled, especially about the eyes. She was thus called Sarah, with the second name of Frances appended in honour of Mrs. McGuire, despite her protestations. The tribute was well deserved. In saving little Sarah this fine working woman saved my father and I as well.
My mother was not buried in her family’s plot, for Grimstone now owned the land along with the rest of my late grandfather’s estate, and he denied permission for the interment. Still he toyed with my father, like a child that has already torn the wings off a fly yet cannot resist playing with the unfortunate creature in its death throes. I did not understand why Grimstone hated my family so much. At first I thought we were just in the way, unwanted tenants in a high street property that the new owner wished to develop, but I realised the animosity was more personal when the note came from O’Neil concerning my mother’s funeral and my father crushed it in his fist and uttered a stream of curses and obscenities that seemed to have no end, the bitter monologue growing in violence until there was nothing left but the vile words echoing through an impenetrable darkness.
There had never been any thought given to an alternative burial site, although in hindsight I wonder why my father had not considered the possibility that there would not be access to the ground, given how many other things had changed since the town and its provinces had become the fiefdom of Grimstone and his agents. He was not himself, though. The automaton had returned, but this time it was broken.
I do not think that either of my parents had anticipated death coming so swiftly. They had made no plans, while the scant documents left by my mother that did concern this matter presupposed the continued use of the family plot, with a naive faith in the essential goodness of human beings that remained with her to the end despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The last offices therefore overran by several days. Even in the December air the heavy scent of wreathes and candles (and the bloody mattress that we had burned), did not disguise the miasma of decay emanating from the closed coffin that my father had made, and which clung ever after to the cottage like the breath of a tomb.
I began to suspect that my father was not going to give up my mother, and that she was to remain in her box in the parlour, the curtains closed, the clock stopped, and the mirror veiled to prevent her spirit from becoming trapped in the glass forever. His heart simply would not let her go, so he just left her where she was, in a liminal realm between the living and the dead.
It was clear that Mrs. McGuire was of the same opinion. ‘You must put her in the ground, Joseph,’ she would say, on her daily visits, when she would feed me and try to feed my father.
‘Not yet,’ he would reply, before returning to a hopeless silence, slumped in his chair by the unlit grate, staring at the space where my mother was not. He had once indicated that he was waiting for a reply from her brother, to whom he had written informing him of the birth and the death. No word was thus forthcoming, although how this would have affected the arrangements was unclear.
After almost a week Mrs. McGuire took charge. She arranged what she called ‘a respectable funeral,’ raising the fee, she said, among the immediate community. Very few of these mysterious neighbours subsequently attended the service. She most likely funded the whole event from her own purse, supplemented by the money my father was managing to pay her to wet nurse my sister. This was in the days before garden cemeteries and municipal graveyards, and a spot was found for my mother in the local church yard, for she was not, like my father, a non-conformist, although the grave was not marked, the cost of a stonemason being beyond the scope of even Mrs. McGuire’s efforts.
It was a modest affair, and there were no feathermen, pages and mutes, or any other of the theatrics that now characterise the middle class funeral, a morbid celebration matched only by the pharaohs of Egypt. Death, nowadays, is very big business, and there are different qualities of grief available according to price. For a couple of quid the regard is very small, but a fiver buys sighs that are deep and audible; for seven pounds ten shillings the woe is profound, but properly controlled, and for a tenner the despair bursts through all restraint, and the mourners water the ground with their tears.
On that morning though, no hearse was engaged, and my mother was conveyed to her last rest in a borrowed cart, with Mr. McGuire and some of his fellow labourers good enough to act as pallbearers. My father and I followed the coffin, and Mrs. McGuire carried Sarah because, she said, she will not understand now but her presence here will mean much to her in later life.
The sober country service passed off for me as if in a dream. Like my father I was exhausted by grief. My parents had always kept themselves to themselves, and without any surviving family beyond my uncle (who had chosen not to be there, despite another letter, this time from Mrs. McGuire), the service was not well attended. My mother had been well liked by those that did business with her, and had I been of sounder mind that day I would have marked the absence of mourners beyond the kindly McGuires, all of whom were in attendance, and missing work to do so. We had become pariahs, as least as far as those in power were concerned, and our neighbours feared to show support for the sake of their own continued and fragile security. This mattered not to the McGuires, who were already beyond the pale by virtue of their faith. More came to the wake than the funeral, perhaps because it was private and therefore a safe environment in which to pay their respects, but probably more for the free ale, pies and cakes that Mrs. McGuire had so generously provided.
I was greatly troubled that the grave bore no marker, and fearful lest I forget its exact location after the grass grew back. In consequence I returned later that afternoon, confident that the sexton would have done his work by then, and resolved to make my own sign upon the ground for future reference, having vowed that one day I would purchase a headstone so that my dear mother’s name should not disappear so absolutely from the world. As this was a decision made upon the spur of the moment, I was not exactly sure what I might use to serve as a permanent marker. Like most boys I had a magpie’s instinct for interesting yet useless objects, and had in my possession a few treasured items that I thought durable enough to do the job without looking too obvious and out of place. I thus carefully embedded at each corner of the oblong of freshly turned earth a flint arrowhead, a small belemnite fossil, a polished cockle shell, and a chunk of black obsidian glass, confident in the knowledge that these could be located at a later date. Innocently reassured, I made my way home to another silent and saturnine evening in the morose company of my father. When I was drawn once more to the grave the next day to lay a few more wild flowers all my markers had gone.
There were a dozen or so years to go until the Anatomy Act gave up the bodies of the unclaimed poor for dissection, and grave robbing was then quite common, although not yet epidemic. It would be a while before Hare was blinded and Burke went to the scragging post, but I already knew enough from rumour to have written a satire upon the subject that had then seemed so delightfully gothic yet so remote. In the end I resolved to leave the matter ambivalent. For all I knew, the sexton had cleaned the ground because, I convinced myself, he was a diligent and conscientious worker. Or perhaps the minister had absent-mindedly removed the items. Who could say? I said nothing to my father, and years later, when I found myself famous, I returned to my hometown and had a marble stone placed over the grave, although to this day I have no idea whether or not this memorial covers my mother’s remains or an empty coffin, like the grave of a mariner lost at sea. Sometimes it is better not to know.
Time passed, and my father and I struggled through the remainder of that miserable winter, working together but rarely speaking. He sewed mechanically, turning his hand to lacework, which had always been my mother’s job. This was a reasonably guaranteed earner, although, as I later discovered was similarly the case with literary work, there was little correspondence between the effort involved in its production and the eventual remuneration. I, meanwhile, kept house as best I could, and slogged through the rain or snow to market to hawk that bloody lace like a woman, silently resenting the customers, who could afford such frippery, and who often still haggled me down, and my father, for my young and uncomplicated mind harboured a persecuting echo that muttered darkly that it was he who had destroyed my mother and was thus the author of our misfortune. He had aged terribly. He took little food and frequently worked through the night, not because he needed to, though the more stock he generated the better, but because he could not sleep and found the thoughts that came with inactivity unbearable. Only my sister prospered, but then she was not with us.
Eventually the spring came, and with the rebirth of the land a certain hope returned, for we both felt once more the hand of my mother, her gentle touch borne upon the warm March air like a gift from Heaven.
Her intervention was as unexpected as the letter by which it was conveyed. It is always unpleasant when correspondence arrives addressed to someone you love who has recently died, and it hit my father with some force when a letter was delivered bearing my mother’s name. He had been coping slightly better with his grief of late, and some of his old self was breaking through the cold ground like the green shoots of our little garden. The name on the letter was a crushing reminder of the great silence left behind by my mother, and this was a setback that I inwardly cursed. The surface of his composure was as thin as a single atom, fragile and easily disturbed, exposing a dark and depthless ocean of despair beneath. He accepted delivery like a mute simpleton, but this incomprehension quickly turned to rage and he cast it from him, commanding that I throw it upon the fire. I hesitated, and in the time it took for me to gawp like an idiot he had changed his mind and snatched it back. He did not, however, open the missive. Instead he placed it upon the mantle, unable to either read or destroy it.
This went on for days. Every time his eyes or thoughts were drawn to the letter his insidious fatalism would intervene. ‘It can be nothing good,’ he would say, and the matter would again be temporarily closed.
‘But what if it’s a bill?’ I finally asked him. A look of panic animated his dejected features, then he snatched the baleful thing from its resting place and thrust it into my hand. The deadlock was broken.
It was not a bill. The letter was from someone called John Scott, who introduced himself as the editor of the London Magazine. He wrote with great enthusiasm about a short story my mother had submitted to Leigh Hunt at the Indicator on behalf of its youthful author, her only son, entitled ‘The Gold Tooth.’ Scott explained, briefly, that his good friend Mr. Hunt had received the story and read it with great interest. We knew of Leigh Hunt from his time at the Examiner. He had apparently felt that although the Indicator may not be the natural home of such fiction, it might well serve Scott to meet what he called his ‘quota of grim stories’ and he had thus forwarded it with a personal endorsement. Scott loved it, and the story was to appear in a forthcoming edition of his magazine. He enclosed a money order for five shillings as a fixed fee for the work, concluding that he would look favourably on further contributions of a similar length, tone and content, and that he looked forward to hearing from the author, whom he felt showed ‘strong potential,’ or his agent (my mother) by return of post.
I have never missed her so much as I did at that moment. I handed it to my father without a word. He read it quickly and collapsed into his chair. ‘Well done, son,’ he finally said.
I mumbled my thanks and then suggested tea. I needed to get away in order to master my emotions, and all I could think of was a trip to the well. I was certain that my father would also require a moment or so alone. While drawing the water I looked to the sky and silently blessed my dear mother.
We both regained our composure in our own ways and then took stock over a brew. Neither said it, but we both knew that there was a potential here to greatly improve our material circumstances, assuming that I could produce further stories in a similar vein, which I was quietly confident that I could. We both knew that in ‘The Gold Tooth’ I had merely been replicating a formula that was then still greatly popular in the literary magazines and annuals, that of the Tale of Terror.
My father had raised me on the things, reading me stories by Lewis, Beckford, Dr. Drake, and Francis Lathom (who he had met), and a variety of anonymous meditations on the mad and the macabre, our favourites, I recall, being ‘The Conclave of Corpses,’ ‘The Midnight Groan,’ and ‘The Dance of the Dead.’ But the best of the best were always published by Blackwood’s, like Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Narrative of a Fatal Event,’ an account of a strangely protracted death by water, ‘Extracts from Gosschen’s Diary’ by ‘B.W.,’ a confession of obsession, murder and necrophilia, and ‘A Night in the Catacombs’ by ‘E.,’ in which an unidentified tourist recounts the terror of being lost in the vaults beneath Paris. Back then my father’s love of a good gothic tale had always transcended the true horror of the Edinburgh magazine, which was its politics. The management were Tory scum to a man.
With the careful cashing of the cheque my father authorised some research, so I purchased recent numbers of several popular magazines, including Mr. Scott’s, in which we discovered that, during the period in which the low family income had precluded the possibility of new reading, the sensational story had continued to flourish and had, indeed, become even more extreme. ‘The Vampyre,’ in the New Monthly (which some attributed to Byron but was actually written by Dr. Polidori of Norwich), Leigh Hunt’s ‘Tale for a Chimney Corner’ in the Indicator, and the anonymous Blackwood’s story ‘The Early Grave’ confirmed this thesis and showed me the path by which I must proceed. Many of these tales seemed to thrive on sensational physical and psychologic violence. The characteristic style was increasingly one of grotesque and clinical reportage, the narrative constructed to convey exaggerated emotional intensity. The point of view was usually first person, and the observational detail (like the voice of a disembowelled surgeon naming each organ as it plopped out on the ground before him), placed the reader behind the horrified eyes of the protagonist. ‘The Early Grave’ was a particularly fine example, and I made it my model. As the narcoleptic narrator is presumed dead and sealed in his coffin, he reports that: ‘I remained voiceless and paralysed within that terrible frozen darkness, yet I could still feel, and hear, and suffer.’
So it was, then, that I commenced my career as a professional author. I had nothing to send the London Magazine, so set about wracking my brains for a gothic tale. Drawing upon a recurring nightmare I penned a new story in a single sitting between dusk and dawn. When I was satisfied with the draft I copied it again without corrections and sent it to Mr. Scott, appending a letter thanking him for his patronage, apologising for the lateness of the reply, and requesting that he further pass on my warmest regards to Mr. Hunt. Scott had not indicated in his original correspondence that my mother had made him aware of my young age, so I gambled that she had not and made no mention of my years, which were barely thirteen in number. I entitled my story ‘The Final Entry in the Journal of the Late Leviticus Lovecraft,’ which I presented as a found manuscript dated October 31, 18—, assuming the voice of the deranged diarist and telling the following tale—
My reason fails me this night. Already, I have seen the shadows moving in the darkness beyond the glass. And yet, they tell me that I am ill. Ill I am, but I know that I be not mad. 0 curs’d flame that flickers but for the briefest instant! Yes, I am not mad although, in truth, I am yet afflicted with a dread-filled acuteness of the senses common to the male lineage of my family. Nay the less, I know what I have seen: things beyond the most vile imaginings of the minds of mortal man. What hellspawn awaits me, eager at the funerary scent of my most shameful degradation? 0 Bless’d Saviour, wherefore hast Thou abandoned me so?
The nightmare began but a year ago. Grenville and I had taken it upon ourselves to traverse the Swiss Alps for the duration of the summer months, it being the occasion of the mutual completion of our respective courses of study at Cambridge. Both in our twenty-first years, our European sojourn had passed without noteworthy incident, let or hindrance until we came upon the village of Karldstadt in the fading embers of an unnaturally becalm’d day. Almost beslumber’d after our day’s constitutional, we sought lodgings at a humble inn, thinking to stay but for the night before striking forth for the cathedral at Inglestadt the following morn. Grenville, a scholar of theology, was desirous of viewing the triptych of the famed Swiss master guild’s man Feidelstein housed within that great temple of our Lord, and I was happy to accompany my good friend on such a noble quest. Would that we had completed that simple task! But cruel Fate intervened as Grenville, that night, was overcome by a nervous exhaustion, no doubt engendered by the vagaries of such a foreign clime. We were thus compelled to remain in Karldstadt while I nursed my companion.
It was during this enforced hold in our expedition that I experienced my first sublime taste of that which men call love, beautiful yet perverted by the disastrous events that I may yet, God willing, relate.
Being a stranger of not unimpressive bearing, I was fortunate, or so it appeared to an innocent such as I, to court the attentions of the beautiful Isobella, a girl of but eighteen summers and the daughter of a local shepherd. Our youthful passion was withal but painfully brief, for her fair countenance, of such delicate, pallid complexion, foreshadow’d a consumption to which she would soon tragically succumb. After three months of divine exile, while my friend gradually recovered and my passion for Isobella flower’d into most perfect consummation, the Lord took her from me. The last word upon her exquisite lips, pale in mortification, was my name. With this, the breath left her body and my dearest love was gone.
Beyond consolation, I saw fit only to drown my fevered ravings in ever larger doses of laudanum, while the worthy Grenville supported me as best he could despite his weakened condition. Neither priest nor physician could restore my enfeebled spirits and, in despair, Grenville returned to England, unable to longer bear witness to my determined self-destruction.
No man has ever been closer to me in this life, yet I could not tell even he, my most benevolent brother, the true nature of the torment that enshrouded my very existence like the veil of the tomb. My beloved did come to me in my dreams each night; and the excesses of my fancied depravity wore heavily upon my heart, draining the life from my body. Unable to confront that which my mind could not comprehend, an animal lust did consume me. I thought of nothing but our one night of love together and this once glorious, yet now painful, recollection did burn me to my very soul. No longer sensible of my actions, I took to wandering the bleak cemetery in which my love was entombed. Finally, one terrible night some weeks after Isobella’s demise, I did enter her sepulchral boudoir and there, in that blighted vault, I gave myself to my beloved once again.
With the coming of the dawn, I realised the full import of this most heinous of crimes against Nature. Tortured to the very edge of madness, a fit of self-loathing came upon me and I hurled myself off the face of the mountain side. Memory of the vile deed which I alone had perpetrated had left me weary of this mortal coil and longing, in that final blasphemous act, for nothing more than the merciful oblivion of death. Yet God had deserted me utterly, denying any such relief from my agony. Instead I lay broken and bleeding beneath a precipice for two days and two nights, before my shattered body was recovered and returned to the keeping of that self-same humble swain who had sired my Lady Isobella. Inwardly I begged for death, but this good and gentle man did save my worthless life by applying balms made from the roots and herbs of the forest. And as I write, some nine months hence from that awful night, my health has all but returned to me; returned to face one final horror before Satan will, as I have no doubt, claim me for his very own.
So now, this night, they tell me that the balance of my mind is disturbed. 0 ye men that call me mad! Could ye but know what I know, have seen what I have seen within the shadows of Lucifer’s dark domain, that which numbs my very heart with the most unspeakable terror. For I have heard it, screaming like a feral cat in the night; I have heard it, my most loathsome progeny, wailing from within that ghastly mausoleum. A thing so hideous that I scarcely dare give its frightful form utterance. Yet I know, I am in no doubt, that a monstrous child was conceived that abominable night, within the dead womb of my beloved. And now that foul creature, neither living nor dead, comes to exact most bitter retribution upon the unworthy father that so callously created it.
As the church clock sounds the hour of midnight, I see again the shadows beyond the door and I am cognisant that no earthly lock will protect me from this dæmon. My blood chills, for I hear the creak upon the stair, the ghastly, laboured, preternatural breathing. My prodigal child is without the room. May Christ have mercy upon my tainted soul.
They say that childhood ends when you realise that you must die. Looking back, it is clear that the gothic sensibility of my childhood fancy was now infected by a gallows humour that had come upon me as a way of coping with the miserable reality of grief and loss, but which did not conceal a newly rooted fear of the mysterious processes of childbirth. In all honesty, I knew little of the mechanics of procreation, so the morbid sexuality of the piece was largely extrapolated from ‘Gosschen’s Diary’ and Marmion, crossed with the talk of the McGuire boys and their sister, Molly, who would show you for a penny.
Discounting ‘The Gold Tooth,’ which was nought but a sketch, this was my first serious attempt to put my mind into that of another, and to find his voice. I was reasonably pleased with the resulting dramatic monologue, although reviewing it now the lack of reported speech is an embarrassment. The structure of the tale was, nevertheless, very tidy. It began in medias res, as Horace would have it, with a decent frame and overall premise. There was a ‘primary generator’ by which the engine of the tale was set in motion, and a short first act in which the point of view narrator was introduced, the scene set, and romance initiated. The death of the lover set the narrative upon a different trajectory, concluding the opening act and establishing the longer second, which closed upon another turn of the plot, in which the protagonist entered the tomb and violated the corpse. The story then concluded in a short third act containing a very nasty epiphany. Mark that structure well, because if you can master the form it can be worth to you up to a guinea a sheet.
Scott accepted my story enthusiastically. This time I received ten shillings and a request for a longer piece. Christopher North wrote in Blackwood’s that ‘The Final Entry’ represented ‘the most obscene depravity of late to originate from the sewers upon which the Cockney School is founded,’ while the vituperative ‘Z’ (his fellow columnist John Gibson Lockhart), pronounced me an idiot and a scoundrel. Hunt countered in the Indicator that it was a ‘damn fine grim story,’ and that he expected ‘great things’ from its young author, noting that he hoped to hear more soon. John Scott cited my story in a long editorial that denounced the duplicity of Blackwood, North, Lockhart & co as the originators of the short sharp shocker who, when bested at their own game, squawked for a ruling from the umpire like a poor batsman bowled for a duck, while pretending a pompous piety that indicated a level of hypocrisy that even he had hitherto hesitated to expect of his rivals.
‘I wonder if there is any depth to which they will not sink?’ wrote Scott, concluding that, ‘I probably better not answer that.’ He and Lockhart continued to bicker in the black print throughout the year, in a dialogue that was vicious even by Regency magazine standards.
Scott’s dispute with Lockhart, however, was no concern of mine. I was now on a roll. I wrote freely and prolifically, relieved by my father of all stitching and hawking duties, which would now have made considerably less money than my stories. I barely noticed as the seasons changed, so engrossed was I in my imaginary realm. I had developed a writing schedule whereby I wrote around the routine of my baby sister, who obligingly slept for two hours each afternoon, and mostly through the night unless ill or scared (and even then she was soon soothed back to sleep). Mrs. McGuire had lavished much love upon her, and my father and I had continued in kind for she was a bright, even-tempered and beautiful child, with golden hair and her mother’s eyes. Thus secure in our affection, Sarah was always a good sleeper.
I had followed ‘The Final Entry’ with ‘The Vivissected,’ wherein a highwayman’s spirit survives hanging, leaving the unfortunate toby-gloak to experience the full agony of surgical dissection, which he duly relates in anatomically precise and disgusting detail. ‘T.H.’ (William Ainsworth of Manchester) was good enough to give this story a very positive review in Arliss’s Pocket Magazine, and Scott was well pleased with his sales that month. I then penned ‘The Labyrinth,’ in which an archaeologist exploring the ruins of Knossos drops corn as a marker in the manner of Theseus’ skein, blissfully unaware that it is being consumed by rats in his wake. He wanders lost, starving and increasingly fevered in the infinite darkness until the rats finally fall upon him and eat him alive, whereupon it must be supposed that he produced tinder and tablet, for he gave a full record of his sensations. This I followed with ‘The Wail in the Windows,’ the tale of the lone occupant of an isolated farmhouse who is slowly driven insane by the sound of a wild wind whistling through the ancient and ill-fitting casements, which he supposes to be the voices of demons calling upon him to join them. Whether or not his supernatural conjecture is accurate, or the product of a demented imagination, is never made clear, but the protagonist’s descent into madness is carefully recorded.
By now I was earning a guinea a story, and although my father insisted on continuing to keep busy, as he put it, I was confident that our ship had come in, and that we need not fear poverty again. I therefore suggested that if my father wished to continue plying his own trade that he might like to dress us in the manner of gentlemen, which he set about doing with great enthusiasm. I next wrote ‘The Shivering of the Timbers,’ a tale of a haunted ship, the Venus, built out of wood harvested from the demolition of the ‘chronic’ wing of the original New Bethlehem Hospital (known more commonly as Bedlam), and infused with a murderous consciousness born of the tortured souls of a hundred dead maniacs. The timbers were capable of dreadful animation, and creaking limbs sprouted in the lower decks to strangle unsuspecting seamen in the dark. I always liked that one.
My final piece for Scott was entitled ‘Wilhelmina the Werewolf Woman.’ This was the tale of an unfortunate Eastern European aristocrat who received a lycanthropic curse from gypsies she had caused to be evicted from her husband’s land. Exiled and destitute after the death of her husband, Wilhelmina is forced to enter the oldest profession, but she is doomed to always transform during congress, consuming her lover in a frenzied passion, as she had her husband on the first full moon after the hex had been cast. I confess that I did try to be more salacious and violent with every story, and I made it my mission to up the ante against Blackwood’s whenever possible, not for the reasons that the radicals Scott and Hunt hated the ‘Maga,’ but because their Tales of Terror represented the yardstick by which all others must be reckoned. I was very innocent in those days.
‘Wilhelmina’ was duly dispatched, but this time no payment was forthcoming. I waited several weeks, and eventually decided to locate the latest issue of the London Magazine to see if my story had been published. No copy could be found. I consulted the town booksellers, one of whom directed me to the latest edition of Blackwood’s, which proudly proclaimed itself to be ‘wet with the blood of the Cockneys.’
‘Why, didn’t you know?’ he said.
‘I’ve been writing,’ I said miserably. ‘I don’t get out much.’
Scott, it transpired, was dead, killed in a duel by Lockhart’s London agent, the bastard Henry Christie. He had apparently insulted Scott in the street and my hot-headed employer had called him out. They met at a farm between Camden and Hampstead, and Scott took a ball in the gut on the second round, dying a couple of weeks later in the most dreadful agony. By the time the news reached me, Lockhart’s man and his second had already been acquitted.
Shortly thereafter my latest manuscript was returned, with a note from the new editor, one John Taylor, rejecting the story and explaining that there was to be a new direction in the magazine, based upon critical writing, poetry, and satire rather than sensation and violence. He wished me luck in my future endeavours, and suggested I try Blackwood’s.
The luckless Scott had been my only connection with literary London, and without him I was helpless. I tried to contact Hunt, but the Indicator had folded suddenly and its editor had left the capital in a hurry, en route to Italy and completely incommunicado. I had the wit to try my other positive reviewer, Ainsworth, though he was then almost as young and unknown as I. He eventually wrote back, briefly explaining that my story had been returned to him from the editor of Arliss’s with ‘No thank you!’ scrawled across the first page in blue pencil. Ainsworth said that he planned to begin his own literary journal, which was to be called the Boeotian. He offered me half a bar, upon publication, for ‘Wilhelmina,’ and promised to let me know when he was up and running.
‘Take heart and have patience, son,’ counselled my father. ‘You might yet thrive as a gentleman of letters if you can but wait until you’re old enough to meet a prospective publisher in person.’
That was then still far from the case, but he suggested that I continue to write every day, advice I have followed ever since, aside from a couple of deeply regretted periods of inactivity when I fancied I was in love. He also tactfully suggested that we return to our more conventional labours, for the money I had lately earned was not going to support us forever. I therefore concluded that the experience had been fun while it lasted, and returned with a heavy heart to my needle and thread, scribbling random thoughts each night in a recently purchased journal in the hope of finding another story. I was suddenly bereft of ideas, being ill-prepared for such a sudden failure after the promise of success.
As it turned out my father’s prediction was more apposite than either of us could possibly have realised at the time, for soon after we lost not only our new income but our home.
While I was writing silly stories, dark forces had been slowly and stealthily marshalling against us, like pieces carefully arranged upon a chessboard. The request to lay my poor mother to rest in what had formally been her family burial plot had, unbeknown to us, been another sort of primary generator, such as that which begins a story, and this initiated a process that was to inextricably lead to our final dissolution.
When my father had contacted Grimstone’s agent regarding the land, the contents of his letter must have settled with the spiders at the back of O’Neil’s mind, quickly dismissed after his master had spoken upon the matter, but now quietly in residence. There was something aporic about the request, but O’Neil had not immediately grasped what it might be, although he must have sensed that something was amiss. Because of the time that elapsed between my mother’s demise and the dreadful repercussions, it is to be assumed that each time the thought rose in O’Neil’s head it was quickly eclipsed by another, so the path that it might have illuminated remained impassable. Finally, a little over a year hence, almost to the hour, as it turned out, that Scott lay bleeding in a frozen field with his belly ruptured and his hopes and dreams as shattered as his spinal cord, O’Neil had a revelation. He communicated this to his employer, who called for his lawyer and the deeds to his local properties.
With that there came fast on the heels of my correspondence with Ainsworth a letter to my father from a certain Mr. Powis, of Carroway, Byng, and Powis, Solicitors, explaining that we illegally occupied a residence owned by Mr. Grimstone which we must quit forthwith. He generously suggested that forty-eight hours upon receipt of his communication would be adequate. The long and the short of it was that my mother had not ever owned our little cottage. It had remained the property of her father, and upon his death it had passed to her brother, my uncle, with the rest of the estate. When he had sold out to Grimstone, he had also, presumably unwittingly, sold our cottage.
My father’s immediate response was unexpected. He neither swore nor shed any tears, no walls were punched, as had lately become his custom when displeased, and nothing was broken. Instead he began to laugh, at first in a low cackle that seemed to originate from far away, but which soon grew in volume and intensity to a howling guffaw that was both infectious and insane. That laugh rained down upon us like shards of ice. I first heard it some thirty years ago, but at night sometimes I hear it still, screaming out of some terrible dream that rips me from my slumber so I know not whether the hysterical cries originate in the darkness around or within me.
It thus fell upon me to investigate. It is a truth well remembered that one should never put one’s life in the hands of the law. I engaged my own solicitor, Slourup, who never missed an opportunity to patronise me on the grounds of age, profession, and social class, while setting me to do all his work for him by researching the history and ownership of the property, while he wrote the same letter over and over again for a shilling a line. Would that my form of writing paid so well! A stay of eviction had been negotiated, but like my savings this was fast reaching its end. Salvation, of a kind, arrived in the form of a note from my uncle, to whom I had written begging for some sort of statement in my father’s favour. This was not forthcoming, but he did offer to take Sarah in rather than see her on the street, out of respect, he wrote, for his dear dead sister. Whether or not my father and I were also welcome was unclear, but as our deadline loomed, with all hope lost, it was mutually decided that we should quietly leave for London.
We had not had enough money left for a coach, so we walked all the way. We had been provisioned by the McGuires, to whom we gave our furniture, and we travelled by necessity very light, carrying nought but a few shillings, the essential and most portable tools of our trade, and the clothes in which we stood up. It was a miserable journey of some seventy or so miles, which took us the better part of a fortnight, although it felt at the time like years. We took turns to carry Sarah, then about eighteen months old, and whenever we saw a farm we would try to buy milk for her and bread, eggs, and cheese for ourselves. I kept her clean as best I could, mostly from streams and, if needs must, puddles, but a horrible rash was creeping all over her body and causing her terrible distress. She only slept when worn out from her constant and deafening lamentations, and we would try to nap when she did, often continuing to walk in our sleep. But it was not the exhaustion, the numbing cold, the incessant, pissing rain, the stabbing pain across my neck and shoulders as I carried my sister, her ceaseless crying, or the burning sores that covered my bleeding feet that I hated the most on that awful march. It was, instead, the shame of being reduced to the status of vagrants. Our clothes were ruined after the first night spent in the open, and we might as well have been begging for food as paying for it for all the respect accorded us by the farmers. Even their servants and labourers looked down upon us.
As I automatically put one foot in front of the other, my body instinctively knowing that to stop would be to die on that terrible road, my conscious mind seemed to contract until it acquired a purity of focus that I had never previously experienced. As I stared through the rain and the darkening sky, I was concentrating upon a fixed point in the future that was not our destination, not the city, my uncle, his house, his table, a bed, nor even the books I knew I would one day write. All I saw were the unctuous features of that son of a whore Grimstone, the author of my family’s despair, our Nemesis. One day, I vowed upon my mother’s bones, I knew not when, or how, I would have my revenge.
My father had wanted to torch the house, saying that he would leave that blackguard Grimstone nothing, but I managed to calm him enough to see reason. I felt much the same as he, but I was more aware of the legal repercussions for incendiaries, being in a somewhat sounder state of mind. It was a Pyrrhic victory, for we were inside soon anyway. By the time we arrived at my uncle’s residence a couple of weeks hence, the bailiffs were already waiting with a warrant. Grimstone was suing my father for years of back rent on the cottage, while Slourup was after me for the balance of our account based upon another series of useless letters. And so it was that we came, at last, to the Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison.
Click here to read Chapter VIII