Days When My Heart Was Volcanic

Days When My Heart Was Volcanic
A novel of Edgar Allan Poe

James Spada

Pond Street Press

Published by Pond Street Press P.O. Box 370 Boston MA 02131

Book design by James Spada
Cover illustration “Playbill” cover art for Mr. Henry Ludlowe’s performance in “The Raven, The Love Story of Edgar Allan Poe,” by George Hazelton, 1908. (Courtesy Eon Editions) Frontispiece “The Raven,” by Arthur Beecher Carles, 1903 (Courtesy Encore Editions)

Copyright © 2010 by James Spada All rights reserved No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or copied in any form or manner without the prior written consent of the author except in the case of brief quotations used in articles or reviews. For permissions write to: James Spada P.O. Box 370 Boston MA 02131 ISBN 1453766065 LCCN: 2010912875 Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication Data James Spada 1950— Days When My Heart Was Volcanic 1. Poe, Edgar, 1809-1849—Fiction 2. 19th-century writers—Fiction 3. New York (N.Y)—Fiction 4. Fordham (N.Y.)—Fiction 5. Mesmerism—Fiction 6. Tuberculosis—Fiction

Biographies by James Spada Grace: The Secret Lives of a Princess Peter Lawford: The Man Who Kept the Secrets Bette Davis: More Than a Woman Streisand: Her Life Julia Roberts: Her Life

Author’s Note
This is a work of fiction. Some of the characters, principally the narrator, are products of my imagination. Others, like Edgar Allan Poe, his family, and his literary circle, are real. Some of the events in this story actually happened, others were created by me. Some of the words spoken and opinions offered by Edgar Poe in this book come from his poems, stories, and letters. The Poe cottage still exists and is maintained largely as it was in 1846 by the Bronx County Historical Society in New York. The Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum, closed in 1894, lies in ruins on what is now called Roosevelt Island in New York’s East River.

New York City, December 1848


an there be a chasm deeper than the hollow left in a broken human heart? Two years have passed since the events that crushed my spirit, but still the pain remains as sharp as a nick from my razor. I recoil from food, from friends. I have no stomach for the diversions that used to bring me pleasure. Most days I remain in bed, where I have fallen half-clothed in the smallest hours of the morning. I sleep a broken sleep, shocked awake again and again by nightmares teeming with madmen and ghosts and cadavers. Some of these are the products of another writer’s imagination. Others are real, people I have loved, people I have lost. While I try to summon the energy to pry myself from bed, my senses are alternately muffled and knife-sharp

in the way that half-sleep can make them. Below my window I hear the clip-clop of hooves on paving stone along Broadway, angry shouts between omnibus drivers, the squawks of the boy hawking newspapers on the corner. I smell the ripe aroma of chestnuts in a vendor’s roasting pan, and that stokes memories too. When finally I lift myself from the bed night has fallen. I do not light a candle, but dress by the dim illumination of a gas lamp slanting up through my window. In a corner I can see the faint outline of my violin case leaning against the wall, exhausted by disuse. On my desk, spectral in the low light, my ink pot sits next to my quill and a few sheets of paper, all as neglected as the violin. They stare back at me as if puzzled. Like a sleepwalker I pull on the same clothes I have worn all week and descend the stairs to make my way to the tavern, where whiskey takes the place of sleep as a means to deaden my heartache. If there was ever a chance that after two years my sorrow might lift, it was dashed last week when I stopped to buy an evening paper. I had lost interest in current events, and in the world of New York’s literati that had so fascinated me. What made me stop and put a penny in the newsboy’s hand this day I cannot tell. I continued on to the tavern, ordered the first of the evening’s drinks, and unfolded the paper. As the barkeep poured me a glass of bourbon my heart was nearly stopped by what I saw in front of me. I should have expected to see the name in print anywhere, at any time, but still a shock twitched through my spine as I read the announcement on the paper’s front page. EDGAR A. POE, ESQ.,




Poe, Poe, Poe! Will I ever be free of that name and the miserable memories it stirs? The thought that he could give his love to another woman—and one who has had knowledge of another man!—after his dear Sissy fills me with anger and disbelief. Theirs are the faces that most haunt my dreams.

When I met Mr. Poe I put myself in his hands. I longed with my student’s fervor that he would not only show me how to be a poet but would guide me to a wise and fruitful manhood. In the beginning I felt exhilarated, certain that this would be so. But little by little the sweet cream of my dreams grew sour, then curdled. The man I have become stares back at me from the glass behind the bar. The bile of recrimination flows through my veins, and yet I know in my heart that I am as much at fault as Mr. Poe. I cannot blame him more than I blame myself for what knowing him made me desire, made me become, made me do.

Fordham, New York, July 1846


ut it is meant for Mr. Poe!” I heard the name through the din of the outdoor market like the clang of hammer on anvil. I turned to see a stout, grandmotherly woman, her black dress offset by a white widow’s cap. A cotton shawl covered her shoulders, although it was a warm forenoon. She carried a wicker basket over one arm. Her other arm was stretched out, her hand inches away from the freshly slaughtered chicken the butcher held teasingly aloft. “I have but a shillin’, sir,” the woman pleaded. “Mr. Poe is ill. Surely, for him—?” “Don’t matter if it be fer Pres’dent Polk,” the man replied. He was as moist and fleshy as the goose carcasses hung in a prim row behind him, and his apron, the color of a new potato, was streaked with fresh blood. “Two bits is me lowest price.” The woman’s eyes narrowed. She seemed to weigh whether to plead further or move along, and she didn’t notice me until I stepped forward. “Did you say two bits?” “That I did, lad. And the finest, freshest bird in Fordham it is.” “I will have it.” I reached into a pocket of my waistcoat, retrieved a quarter dollar piece, and placed it in the man’s eager palm. The woman looked at me, her gray eyes glinting disappointment. She said nothing more before she turned and walked away. “Hurry, sir,” I urged as the vendor wrapped the bird in brown paper and tied it with a thin white string. I grabbed the package and ran after the woman. “Excuse me, please, ma’am,” I called as I caught up to her. She stopped and turned. In her basket I could see an onion, two carrots, and a turnip. Her dress was clean and well kept but homespun and a bit worn. I assumed her to be a domestic who had left the house without enough money for her marketing. Her broad face

remained stony as she looked up at me, her lips pressed into a thin line. She waited for me to continue. “Begging your pardon, ma’am—if it’s not too forward of me—I could not help but overhear you mention the name Mr. Poe to the butcher. Would that be Edgar Allan Poe, the writer? I have heard it said that he recently moved here.” Her wary gaze took full stock of me before she replied. “I did indeed refer to that gentleman.” I tried to mask my excitement, to little effect. “Please, ma’am, I am so sorry to hear that Mr. Poe is ill. I am a great admirer of his writing. I must have read everything he has written. Would you be kind enough to give him this as a token of my esteem?” I thrust the wrapped chicken toward her. Again she hesitated. “I cannot accept a gift from a stranger,” she replied at last, and started to turn away. “My name is Jeremiah Delaney, ma’am. So you see, I am no longer a stranger.” She stopped and smiled slightly, her wariness softened. “Thank you, young man,” she said, and nodded. “I am Mrs. Clemm.” She took the package and placed it in her basket, then resumed walking. I, bolder than I could have imagined myself, continued to walk beside her. I am tall and have a long gait, so I took shorter strides than usual to avoid moving ahead of her. The sounds of sellers hawking faded behind us as we started up the dusty dirt path toward the Kingsbridge Road. We walked in silence for a few moments, the smells of roasting nuts and freshly slaughtered meat replaced by the sweet waft of rose water from Mrs. Clemm. She seemed to pay me no heed, but I was sure she remained aware of my presence. I fancied that she appreciated my company, but this was based more on my desire that it be so than on any such indications from the lady. A horse approaching from behind moved us to the side of the road. Once the carriage passed and the sound of hooves faded, we resumed our progress and I spoke again—a bit too eagerly. “I just this morning finished the latest installment of Mr. Poe’s ‘Literati of New York City’ in ‘Godey’s Lady’s Book.’ I look forward to each month’s profiles. I first became aware of his writings about four

years ago. A cousin gave me the first volume of ‘Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque’ for my sixteenth birthday. I hid it from my parents—my father would not have approved. I barely ate or slept until I finished it, two days later, all fourteen stories. I’m certain that ‘The Tell-tale Heart’ frightened me out of a year’s growth.” Mrs. Clemm turned to me and laughed, her face shedding the dour cast etched there by a life in the servant trade. “Your height has certainly caught up since then, Mr. Delaney. Truth be told, Eddie’s stories have robbed me of many a night’s sleep as well.” I was taken aback to hear her refer to her employer in such a familiar way, but I betrayed no hint of this to her. We turned onto the Kingsbridge Road and began to climb Fordham Hill. After we had gone a few dozen yards along this road, she saw me glance at an isolated cottage at the hill’s crest. “That is our home,” she said. Another thrill coursed through me. How many times had I passed this wooden structure on my way to and from school, unaware that within its walls lived the great Poe? Incautiously, I blurted out the question. “Is Mr. Poe at home?” “No. He has been in New York City since yesterday, meetin’ with editors.” Her soft drawl suggested she had spent most of her life a deal south of New York. Although I had expected from what Mrs. Clemm told the butcher that Mr. Poe would be at home on a sickbed, I again did not express my confusion as we approached the cottage. It was a small, pine-shingled wood frame structure of one and a half stories, with a sharply pitched roof and a covered porch that extended along the width of its front. Three wooden pots of thickly flowered geraniums dotted the porch; jasmine vines entwined the pillars and lent their sweet to the air. Here and there a cherry tree dotted the greensward that surrounded the house. The serenity of the cottage impressed me. The quiet of the area was interrupted only by the occasional twitter of a blue jay or the rustle of a breeze. This seemed a modest home for a man of Mr. Poe’s renown. I knew the interior would reflect his fame and fortune—but I dared not hope to be asked in.

To my relief, Mrs. Clemm did not dismiss me as she approached a door at the right end of the porch. I followed close behind, but when she opened the door and stepped inside, I hesitated. “I do not wish to impose.” “It would not be an imposition, Mr. Delaney,” she said. “Please, come in.” As I entered the room—the kitchen—and closed the door behind me, Mrs. Clemm crossed to a doorway that led to a parlor. She remained there for a minute, listening intently. I heard nothing—and neither did she, to judge from her lack of reaction. I looked around the room. To my surprise, it was even humbler than the exterior. It was as narrow as a railway car, and sparsely furnished. In the center stood a pine sawbuck table flanked by two ladder-back chairs; two similar chairs were hung along a wall. Next to a twelve-paned window curtained with gauzy white fabric stood a plain pine hutch with two shelves above a two-door cabinet. A few wooden cooking utensils and several knives hung from nails along the walls. The wooden door of the fireplace, painted a pale blue, was closed for the summer. The unused poker, hearth brush and two bellows leaned out of a carved-out tree trunk. At the wall opposite the fireplace stood a small cook stove with a kettle on top. My expression must have betrayed my surprise, because Mrs. Clemm asked, “Is there something wrong, Mr. Delaney?” I felt my cheeks redden as I reassured her. I tried to reconcile the disparity between what I had expected of Edgar Allan Poe’s home and what I saw around me. Finally I hit upon the answer: Mr. Poe must own another residence in New York City, a great house with fine furnishings and a staff of servants. I must be in the kitchen of his summer home, a retreat where he enjoys the calm and quiet he needs to write. Mrs. Clemm, his cook and housekeeper, had joined him here for the summer. “Oh dear,” Mrs. Clemm said as she peered into the stove’s firebox. “The fire is nearly out. I will have to bring in more wood if I am to boil a stew.” She started toward the door but I reached it before she did. “Please, allow me.”

She smiled. “The pile is alongside the house.” By the time I returned with an armful of logs and twigs, Mrs. Clemm had removed her shawl and widow’s cap. Her wispy white hair gathered into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. As I crossed to the hearth and grabbed the poker she stood at the table and unwrapped the chicken. “Nice and young,” she proclaimed. With one precise blow with a heavy cleaver she halved the carcass; four more brisk chops severed legs and wings. I placed the logs in the firebox and prodded them with the poker. Mrs. Clemm carried the chicken pieces over, gently dropped them into the water, and moved the kettle onto the cook plate. Then she returned to the table and quickly washed the vegetables in a small tin bowl, peeled the onion and turnip, trimmed the carrots, and diced them all into small pieces. “Mr. Delaney, do sit down,” she said as she added the vegetables to the kettle. I had been watching the fire intently; the logs I added had not yet caught the flame. As I sat on one of the chairs at the table, Mrs. Clemm fanned the fire with the smaller bellows. Soon it took on a steady glow, the cook plate warmed, and Mrs. Clemm returned to the table. The stove added to the room’s warmth, which was already considerable, as it was noon and the sun glared bright outside the windows. Droplets of perspiration pearled on Mrs. Clemm’s forehead, matting the wisps of hair that curled along her temples. She seemed unfazed by this as she continued with her chores. She cleaned the cleaver with a damp rag, and swept the vegetable leavings from the table into her hand before placing them in a jar—where, I surmised, they would remain until added to a compost pile. She then broke off leaves from several sprigs of dried herbs that hung from a nail on the side of the cupboard, crumbled them between her fingers, and threw them into the kettle. She took a long wooden spoon off the wall and stirred the stew, which had begun to give off waves of steam. Finally she lowered herself onto a chair across the table from me. “We are in for a hot rest of the summer, no doubt of that,” she said. She took a crumpled cloth from the pocket of her dress and wiped her forehead.

“Though I must say it has been cooler here than in the city since we came last month.” She stopped and looked out the window. Outside the air was still. “Have you been here in Fordham during the winter?” she said finally. “I suspect that just as the summers are cooler here the winters might be colder.” “I have been studying at St. John’s, just down the road a bit, for the past two years and yes, both winters have been very cold. I would imagine that this house might be vulnerable to winds, unprotected as it is.” Concern clouded Mrs. Clemm’s eyes; whatever her thoughts, she soon cocked her head toward the door to the parlor, as she had before, listening with the wariness of a wren over her hatchlings. Again there was no sound. She shook her head slightly as though to clear her mind and stood up. I took this as an invitation to leave, and I rose as well. “Thank you so much for the chicken, Mr. Delaney, and for your help with the wood. I hope someday to see you again.” A soft sound from the parlor caught our attention. Then a girl’s voice asked, “Who is it, Muddy? Who is there?” Mrs. Clemm hurried through the door, and I heard muffled conversation. I could make out only my name and a few other words in the exchanges, and Mrs. Clemm’s insistence that I was about to leave. After several more words the girl said, in a voice I could now hear clearly, “I shall meet Mr. Delaney, mother, and that is the last of it!” Moments later Mrs. Clemm re-entered the kitchen, followed by a young woman older than she had sounded —I judged her to be about twenty-three. She was the loveliest, frailest girl I had ever seen. The color and texture of her skin made me think of the delicate pale petals of a calla lily. Her cheeks were blushed and her eyes, framed by lush lashes, were colored a more vibrant violet than I had ever seen before. She wore a long white nightdress, and only the contrast of her unpinned hair, as black as pitch and flowing down past her shoulders, kept her from seeming spectral. I responded to her as I never had anyone before—in an instant my heart flooded with love. I had enjoyed little

exposure to girls growing up on the farm in New Hampshire, and even less after my mother chose to teach me at home rather than send me to the schoolhouse Miss Palmer established in town. Even now, only boys were my classmates at St. John’s, only men my teachers. I did not consider my limited basis for comparison. I simply knew that the woman in front of me was the most beautiful, desirable human being I had ever seen, a sweet goddess floating toward me as though from heaven. At that moment she passed into my soul forever. “Mr. Delaney,” Mrs. Clemm said, “allow me to introduce my daughter, Virginia.” I wondered that a woman as stalwart as Mrs. Clemm could be the mother of such a delicate creature. Virginia smiled and held out her hand. She gazed so steadily into my eyes that my cheeks burned as hot as the fire I had just fed. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Delaney. I hope my mother hasn’t talked your ears off.” I stammered a denial as I took her hand, and she laughed, though not unkindly. Her laugh had the lilt of the lightest arpeggio. Her southern accent, softer than her mother’s, lent her speech a velvety timbre that served only to heighten the vertigo that I felt in her presence. As though directed by a force outside myself, I then did something I could never have imagined doing. I leaned over and kissed the tiny pale hand that Virginia had offered me. When I straightened up she looked at me bemusedly, and I felt heat rise again in my cheeks before Mrs. Clemm’s voice broke the awkward moment. (Did she sense the need to end the spell?) “Mr. Delaney was just about to leave, Sissy. I need to begin the sewin’ Mrs. Jamison brought over yesterday.” “Oh, please do stay,” Virginia said as she lowered herself onto the chair Mrs. Clemm had vacated. She turned to her mother. “I’ll help you with the sewin’, Muddy. I’m sure Mr. Delaney‘s company will make the chore go by more pleasantly.” Mrs. Clemm hesitated before she replied. “Very well,” she said, and gave me a slight smile as she took a chair down from the wall and moved it up to the table. I was

pleased that Virginia had taken a seat because my knees had begun to feel watery and I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to remain upright much longer. As I sat down again, Mrs. Clemm moved over to the cupboard and, crouching carefully, as though in pain, opened the lower doors to fetch a bundle of clothing and a sewing tin. She set them down on the tabletop, then went over to the stove to stir the stew, which now boiled heartily and thickened the air with moist aroma. As her mother sat down and undid the brown twine around the bundle, Virginia fished inside the sewing basket and pulled out a paper of pins and several spools of white thread. “Mrs. Jamison has asked that we add lace to the collars and cuffs of her daughters’ dresses,” Mrs. Clemm said as she spread the garments out across the table. As mother and daughter busied themselves with the preparations for sewing, I found myself unable to keep my gaze from Virginia. I marveled at the supple lines of her mouth, a pink tulip against the ivory of her skin. She looked up to see me staring, and smiled. Did she mock me, or was she offering the gentlest encouragement? I dared not hope for the latter. “Tell me, Mr. Delaney,” Virginia said after we had gazed at each other a few moments while Mrs. Clemm cut lace. “What has brought you to our home?” I found recounting how I had come to sit across from her a welcome distraction. As I spoke she busied herself threading two needles while her mother cut more pieces of lace from a pattern that had been among the garments. I finished by mentioning I was a student at St. John’s. “And what is it you’re studyin’?” Virginia handed her mother a threaded needle. Mrs. Clemm seemed unaware of our conversation as she carefully snipped the lace patches that would be sewn onto the collars of the Jamison girls’ dresses. “Mainly Religion and Classical Literature,” I replied. “Hmmm.” Her reaction remained in the air as she took a piece of lace from her mother, picked up one of the dresses, and began to sew the tatting onto the collar. I was about to ask Virginia what her reaction signified when she spoke up.

“And what profession do you hope to pursue after you complete your studies?” “I have no idea.” Both women looked up from their work. “What I mean is, I find myself in a quandary. Two of my uncles—my mother’s brothers—are priests, and my mother would love for me to follow in their footsteps. When I began my studies I thought that was what I wanted as well, but now I’m not sure.” Virginia and her mother returned their attention to their work, and without looking up again, Mrs. Clemm said, “What you would really like to be is a writer.” I started. How could she have known this? My expression caused both women to chuckle. “I taught school in Bal’more for several years,” Mrs. Clemm said. “I could usually tell a student’s ambitions after a few minutes of conversation. Your eagerness to meet Eddie suggested that you might have ambitions of your own as a writer.” Did Mrs. Clemm sense as well that I hoped (against all reason) that Mr. Poe might take an interest in my writing, might help me get published? It was an absurd dream, one I had little right to conjure. “There is no reason to be embarrassed, Mr. Delaney,” Mrs. Clemm said, her gaze softly meeting mine, her voice that of a woman accustomed to consoling. “You pay Eddie a great compliment—one I will pass on to him and which he will, I can assure you, receive with gratitude.” I smiled, and saw that Virginia now studied me. “You look like a writer,” she said. “You remind me of a print I once saw of Lord Byron. So handsome. And you both have a romantic quality—one that you share with Eddie, if I do say so.” I looked away, my face hot. But before long I found myself revealing more than I normally would to virtual strangers. “Were I to achieve even a fraction of Mr. Poe’s success I could be a help to my mother financially. I could pay her back for all the sacrifices she has made to send me to college. There isn’t much money to be had by following the calling. But literary success like Mr. Poe’s, well . . .” Virginia did not respond to the comment. Mrs. Clemm’s mouth pursed slightly and she looked up at me

for just a moment before returning her gaze to her sewing. I sensed that they did not want this strain of conversation to continue, and so the three of us fell into silence as mother and daughter continued to sew patches of lace onto the satin collars of the dresses. I tried not to let Virginia catch me staring at her; to my relief her concentration on her work kept her from looking up for some time. Mrs. Clemm stitched briskly, although her hands were gnarled with rheumatism and she several times stopped to rub them; Virginia went about her task more slowly. Somehow they completed each collar in the same amount of time. A few minutes later a skinny tortoiseshell cat entered the room, mewed, and slunk over to a tin bowl near the door. After a sniff at the few food scraps it contained, the animal turned around and, with an air of melancholy, padded back out into the parlor. “That was our Catterina,” Mrs. Clemm said. “She does not eat much when Eddie is away.” “Happily he is never gone more than a day or two at a time,” Virginia added. “We all miss him so terribly when he is not home.” I turned my gaze back to Virginia and asked, “How long have you and your mother worked for Mr. Poe, Miss Clemm?” Both women started, and then laughed merrily. They stopped only when they saw my distress. “Mr. Delaney,” Virginia said in a tone of voice that mortified me, “my mother and I are not in Mr. Poe’s employ. We are his family. I haven’t been Miss Clemm for almost ten years now. I am Mrs. Poe.” Shame swept over me. I had so awfully misunderstood; I had insulted this young lady and her mother, who had treated me kindly. What was worse, I had come into the home of a man I admire and coveted his wife! My face burned hotter than the fires of hell to which I knew I would be condemned. I stood up so abruptly I knocked over my chair. “Mrs. Clemm, Mrs. Poe, I–I can’t expect you to forgive me but please accept my apologies. I did not—” I was stopped short by the bang of the kitchen door as it swung open and crashed against the wall. In the doorway loomed a mustachioed man dressed in a black

frock coat, gray waistcoat, blue cravat, black trousers and boots. He had a high expanse of forehead, and his dark disheveled hair fell almost to his shoulders. His finely cut features were contorted into an angry grimace, and his large, luminous gray eyes shot his rage into the room like a cannon. I had never seen an image of Edgar Allan Poe, but I had no doubt he now stood before me. “Muddy, Sissy!” he wailed in a voice quaking with outrage. “I have been vilified—libeled— in the most egregious manner!” He dropped his carpetbag, threw his hat on the floor, and strode into the room, his stare burning into the newspaper page he held close to his face. He took no notice of me. I had seen before the way he moved, the way he spoke, the look in his eyes—seen them when my father swilled his whiskey and erupted into rages. I drew away until I backed into the wall. “Who has defamed you, Eddie?” Mrs. Clemm asked, alarm shaking her voice. “What has he said?” Virginia pleaded. “It is that blackguard Thomas Dunn English! Listen to what he has written—in the Mirror, for all New York to read!” Virginia and Mrs. Clemm watched him anxiously as he circled the table like an angry cougar pacing its cage. “Eddie, please,” Mrs. Clemm said, “it does no good to upset yourself like this—” But he read on, his tone pitching higher with every line he read. “‘I hold Mr. Poe’s acknowledgement for a sum of money which he obtained from me under false pretenses. I ask no interest, in lieu of which I am willing to credit him with the sound cuffing I gave him when last I saw him.’ “Hah!” Mr. Poe bellowed, beads of sweat flying off his face as he paced. “Who would believe this blatherskite? It is I who cuffed him, and I will tell the world about it. But there is worse!” Spittle spewed from his mouth as he read on. “‘A merchant of this city had accused him of committing forgery.’

“Can you believe this?” he cried. “The man has accused me of a crime. This is the basest of libels! Oh, the world will know that Mr. T. D. English is a liar, I swear to that. I will sue for every penny the poor untalented sot ever earned!" He did not respond to the women’s continued pleas to calm himself. “Listen to what he writes of me: ‘He really does not possess one tithe of that greatness which he seems to regard as an uncomfortable burden. He mistakes coarse abuse for polished invective, and vulgar insinuation for sly satire. He is not alone thoroughly unprincipled, base and depraved, but silly, vain and ignorant—not alone an assassin in morals, but a quack in literature.’ “A quack! Ignorant!” He thrust the newspaper above his head and shook it toward the ceiling. “As God is my judge—” The sound of the cruelest coughs from Virginia’s throat stopped him cold. Mrs. Clemm sprang up and over to the cupboard, where she grabbed a small unmarked bottle and a spoon. Mr. Poe fell to his knees next to his wife as her body convulsed with hacks. “It will be all right, my darling Sissy, it will be all right —Muddy has your laudanum.” On her knees now as well, Mrs. Clemm attempted to spoon some of the medicine into her daughter’s mouth, but her outbursts were so frequent she could not. At last Virginia was able to swallow some of the liquid as Mr. Poe clung to her thin arm and continued to murmur reassurances. After another spoonful of the thick reddish-brown potion, Virginia’s coughs subsided, and then stopped. She sagged on her chair like an unstrung marionette. On one side of her Mrs. Clemm stroked her hair and repeated soothing words; on the other Mr. Poe rested his forehead on her thigh and patted her arm while he whispered his own soft reassurances. Without the wall to support me I surely would have crumpled to the floor. My heart wept at the sorrowful scene before me. I longed to comfort Virginia myself, to be of comfort to her comforters. But surely I had no right to witness such intimacy.

Dizzy with conflicted emotions, my heart and my legs heavy, I slipped unnoticed across the room and out the door.

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