“As the spring crept into summer my days seemed imbued with an uncanny quality from which, despite my best efforts, I could not struggle free. I had all my life believed that the moral arc of the world bent towards justice, but in recent months I had begun to fear that his faith in science had doomed Edward to an existence which he scarcely deserved. To me and to his family (though for far different reasons) he had become something of an artefact, lost somewhere outside of our control.
“Towards the beginning of June, dear readers, I felt the final touch of Edward’s hand and read the last words that he would write with me as his intended audience. I was returning from a proceeding during which I had been compelled to defend the inheritance of a bachelor whom in normal circumstances I would treat with the disdain his personal character merited. After a significant tug at my laudanum flask I exited the hansom cab and proceeded to walk the last stretch home along Storey’s Gate, the tall red townhouses fusing above me into a single monolithic structure overhanging the pavement.
“At the corner of Old Queen’s Road I stepped, as I customarily did, across the square-shaped patch of grass which separated the servants’ entrance to our modest house from the flue and the pavement of Storey’s Gate. I sensed as I reached the door a fluttering—little more than a movement accompanied by a bat’s wing mutter—emanating from the kitchen chimneystack. In a crevice between two red bricks there was, I saw, a note.
“I was gripped by the same sense of disinclination that had come over me after I had so casually taken the journals from Edward’s laboratory. Was this some form of rapprochement for the misuse of my dear friend’s messages? The note was packed tightly into the wedge between some dried mortar and the keystone above the arch of the flue. I removed it and read, in Edward’s hand:
‘“This city, beautiful though empty. She was lost, jumping ahead. Perhaps I will see you again, in the present-time.
“Written indistinctly below the message was what could only be a date—the numbers 14/8/35. If Edward were indeed trapped, if Fitzpatrick’s potion had by virtue of its quantity been wrenching him from one point in his history to another, then he was now cast fifty years into our past.
“I turned the note in my hands over and, simple solicitor or not, it was immediately clear that my dear friend was not being cast further backwards but was in fact somewhere outside even my comprehension. The reverse of this small, papery artefact—glossy as though finished with some kind of protective veneer—was a daguerreotype of a kind I had never before seen. Vivid beyond the capacity of science, it was unlike even the most lucid portraits I had seen of the American President Lincoln or the Houses of Parliament by the Thames.
“The image was fully coloured and glowed—glistened—more than the place in the portrait should have done were I there myself. In the foreground the image was all water, a deep blue growing to black just below some sort of iron railing. But further into the background—miles further but as clear as they would have seemed to my own eyes—there soared buildings taller than any cathedral spire or monument I had encountered. Between them rushed carriages, grey and black and other colours, drawn much like Edward had described under their own steam, free (or so I imagined) from the necessity of horses and their attendant stench.
“Above even the tallest tower the sky was coated in cumulonimbus clouds, layered between the gridded structures and a cerulean-blue sky. Even fifty years from now, some things remained the same, I told myself. I crushed the portrait into my overcoat, touching as I did so the familiar shape of the key in my outer pocket, and imagined dear Edward doused in the mechanisms, the magic, of things to come but regretting always the things he had lost along the way.
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“The peak of summer came and I was incapacitated with the tremendous heat. As we often did, Mildred and I took several weeks to recuperate and to remain out of the clinging foetid air that inhabited the parks and brougham carriages of London. Though I thought daily of Edward and of the incomprehensible date of his last missive, I felt powerless to help him. Where once a glass of Glendronach and a sympathetic ear could assuage his worries, I had no doubt that he was now beyond such ministrations.
“In the obscurest corner of my study I settled into the rocking-chair below my portrait; a painting of myself looking rather regal at the now unimaginable age of twenty-three. On a table to the left of the chair was a translucent decanter full of tincture and a glass half-filled. I rested my hand on the table and pulled from the shelf behind me a leather-bound volume fastened shut with twine. With a brittle sound I untied and opened the book to the last page so that I might examine once more the portrait of this urban, foreign, future landscape.
“My skin rustled on the vellum of Fitzpatrick’s papers and I thought of Edward’s specimens—dead and dusty—in his basement study. Fifty years hence I too would be gathering dust somewhere beneath the soil of this city. Perhaps I will see you again, Edward’s note had said. This struck me as more than wishful thinking—even at his most fanciful my dear friend was not a nostalgic—and the words elicited in me the same urge which had drawn me to the mahogany cabinet that past spring.
“Perhaps I will see you again, in the present-time. I finished the glass beside me and waited for the rheumatical pains in my foot to subside (aggravated as they were by the heat). I wanted to sleep, to dream the peaceful dreams that only the opium would provide. I could slip at this very moment like a raindrop, slip into the past or the future.
“—What, though, are you going to do, Henry? I suppressed a giggle at this hysterical state of affairs and a hiccough of my chest brought me close to spilling the book of notes onto the floor. Today is the first oft August, I told myself. I replaced the daguerreotype and closed the book on the uncannily-dated image. 14/8/35. I have a fortnight.
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“The humidity hung about me and commingled with the summer smoke as I arrived at 17 Salisbury Road on August 14th. The heat brought always a heavy atmosphere to the city, though in the decades I had lived there London had thankfully lost some of the organic stench that characterised its summer months.
“Using the key I had obtained against my better judgement, I unlocked the house door and an attempted to remain inconspicuous by stepping through a two feet-wide gap between the limn and the lock. Sunlight was being filtered through the drawing room and hallway drapes and its angle—I am sure Edward had remarked on this at one time or another—created a red hue throughout the ground floor of the house. Its warmth, I thought, was deceptive.
“Directly in front of me was the stairway leading to the private chambers on the first floor above. To my right were windows overlooking the alley and the entrance to Edward’s subterranean study, to my left the drawing room where Henrietta’s pendant had so mysteriously reappeared. Stepping into the drawing room I felt as though I were re-entering the scene of some crime; in the creak-creak-click of my feet followed by my cane I sensed an old house that was less than desirous of my presence.
“The intrusion, I decided, was warranted. In point of fact this decision had been reached long before I found myself in Salisbury Road that evening. On the furthest interior wall of the drawing room— running parallel to the front edifice of the house—was a door, concealed in part by the black finish of the piano standing in front of it. This entrance had in the past led to the stony room below. The narrowest of edges protruded from the wall and, fitting my fingers carefully around this lip, I pulled until the hinges just behind the imported Steinway tore at the wood and the door popped open to a strangling, reverberative chorus.
“Even with the absence of light the brief set of steep spiral stairs wound their way just as I remembered into the basement. I set about my descent with some trepidation and with a crescendoing fear less exacerbated than borne aloft by the opiates in my blood. Exerting pressure on the bare brick walls around the staircase and leaning my walking stick as near to the edge of each step as I dare, I spun my way down and into the gaslit study.
“I paused at the last step. Why were the gas lanterns running? In the low light cast around the stone walls were shadows and crooks which I could not recall having seen during my most recent visit to Edward’s study. The cabinets of medical paraphernalia situated to the left of the spiral steps were as dust-covered as ever and beyond stood the mirror in which I had seen that grotesque portrait of my friend just before his disappearance. In the centre of the room hung the solitary light source, directly above the central table and illuminating in a coppery glow the heavy bottle that had been filled neatly, filled to the brim with that damned stuff. The Phillips beaker remained empty beside its larger sibling and I felt a shudder at my having ingested any of this diabolical potion.
“Reaching out not without some apprehension I clasped a hand around the narrow neck of the bottle. Lifting it I held it carefully between my eyes and the gaslight and gazed through the autumnal viscous liquid in hopes of some trace of an explanation; some hope, or so I thought, of salvation for my friend. Enclosed between the cold stones that night I could not comprehend that I, as much as my dear Edward, was in need of salvation.
“At this stage, my friends, I must pause to tell you that my nerves were rather wracked and certainly in need of a supplemental drop or two of laudanum. The tales of Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick as told in his extensive, mesmeric journals had somehow crept from my dreams onto the edges of my waking mind and were no longer, as far as I was concerned, fictitious. These stories flew through my head daily and had fused into some ghastly amalgam with Edward’s fate. If only, I thought, I could find Mr Thomson or Fitzpatrick, they could…
“—Henry. I stopped to check my senses at the sound of my name, a spoken hiss in the dark. I knew for a fact that Henrietta had returned home to Hertfordshire and I was sure I had laid the deadbolt across the front door.
“I replaced the bottle on the table and turned slowly in a clockwise motion: before me the bottle, under gaslight and against a backdrop of specimen cases; more cabinets of dusty medical journals and the neighbouring alleyway entrance to the basement room; the spiral staircase and the glass in the corner followed by more specimens on the oblong table where Edward had hidden the viscous potion. I leaned an arm against the chair back.
“—Henrrry, I… came failing through the air like the sound of an expiring creature. A subhuman hum shook the table and the miasma of fluid at the lip of the bottle made its miniature wave. A tremor ran across my chest as though my heart were beating to escape the confines of my diaphragm. I raised my left hand to my temple, a misplaced gesture of self-comfort, before catching in the strips of light between my fingers and somewhere in the corner between the mirror and the side-table a streak of movement.
“I turned and walked to the echo of feet and cane thud-thud-clinking towards the glass. Reflected in the top half of the surface I could make out my own figure, haloed as it was in a failing green light and slowly advancing. I was less than a foot from the glass when a whisper more tangible than audible dashed around me, a sibilant rush coming from my left which briefly forked to surround me before knocking with a force greater than seemed possible into the mirror.
“My reflection flexed and warped in the gaslight for several seconds and…
“—Henrrry, I am… The noise sounded again, this time with more force. At the far right edge of the mirror where previously there had been only a smudge of darkness and the barely visible brim of my hat was now a swirl of colour like an unfolding sheet, creases and furls which, though bathed in the green-black glow of the room, gave off an unnatural light of their own.
“—Unst…Henry… the voice faded as the lines coalesced into a picture—more alive still than the daguerreotype crushed between the brickwork of the flue—until of their own accord they drew beneath the glass an outline, in profile, of a cadaverous, almost monochrome face. Initially there emerged a jaw line, followed by the protuberance of an aquiline nose flared at the nostrils, a mouth thin and straight and—finally—the sunken, ghastly eyes of Edward Willis.
“—Am unstuck… Henr… The face contorted with each word as though a portrait come to hideous life. I gazed open-mouthed at the visage of my friend trapped in some unphysical aether which I could not penetrate, from which he could not be freed. The gaslit reflection now occupied the full length of the mirror—by now, friends, I was powerless to move—and fingertips pressed to the point of whiteness against the other side of the glass. An appalling inverse of my dear Edward.
“I am unstuck… I stepped one thud closer to the apparition and its grey irises followed the movement.
“—Edward? I said. It seemed to comprehend speech even from its netherworld. I babbled: —The picture and the key… your letter, did you…?
“—Cannot go back, Henry. It seemed to approach the other side of the glass. Only advance. I raised my hand but hesitated before laying my clammy palm against the mirror.
“—Then the daguerreotype originates—will originate—in some city, some future that you inhabit? I said. A grisly nod revealed the white underbelly of Edward’s eyes. The reflection began to flicker and then seemed to laugh. For the first and only time that night I considered that perhaps I was experiencing some form of hysterical fit brought on by the tremors in my chest.
“—Alone…Up to you… He clung to the edges of the living portrait and I realised that he had not been laughing. His eyes glistened with a tiny wave of tears.
“The closer Edward pressed to the glass the less distinct he became. The whisper of those three words ringing in my ears seemed also to fade and a draught drew its way—growing in intensity—somewhere in the void between me and the mirror. Fearing that he would vanish once again and believing that I more than anyone owed Edward a chance of liberation from these temporal constraints, I felt the movement behind my eyes which had throughout my life signalled that it was time to act.
“In a moment of warped logic I have never come to understand, I pirouetted back towards the table and took three brisk steps up to the glass bottle and the conical beaker which lay beside it. In doing so my cane fell and clattered across the floor, the sound of wood on stone rattling across the confines of the basement. I clasped in my right hand the neck of the bottle and in my left supported its base, then—watching the while as the gelatinous fluid swelled and spilled from the open mouth—I turned and heaved with a strength I thought long past and let go the bottle.
“It flew from my hands twirling a coppery stream behind it and skewered into and then through the mirror, shards of glass spilling now from the frame, now from the shattered container. The ghastly mask in the mirror ruptured under the impact and split into tiny fragments. Amongst the noise resonating against the walls of specimens and journals I thought I could hear—or feel—the sound of a voice fading into the harsh, destructive background noise. As the reverberations decayed I leaned back on the table and felt a horribly oppressive stillness.
“At my feet and covering the cold floor were shards of glass drowned in the potion. The damned stuff flowed almost opaquely now between the stones in small, silent rivers. I stepped back to avoid its approach and walked with some difficulty over to my cane. Bending down I recalled the stack of tumbled journals which had been scattered across the larger table and the ground like flakes of dead skin. I wondered what might have been the fate of Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick.
“I creaked upward and tugged free the deadbolt on the cellar door. As I pushed out into the doorwell to Edward’s study, the August evening heat descended and brought with it the odour of horse manure and sewer water. I wandered for close to an hour before a solitary Hackney carriage on the corner of Lissom Grove decided my shambolic figure was worth the fare. Climbing in I rapped on the roof with my cane and nothing—not the braying of horses nor the calls of women in the sultry summer streets—could shatter the half-dead trance glowering over the corner of that cab.
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“Dear friends—you who have so patiently listened to and so meticulously documented this tale—you may be searching for some grand meaning or significance in the fate of Edward M. Willis. I fear that I can provide neither. As I recollect this story it is July in the year of 1886. It is another airless, malodorous summer in the city of London and I am reminded constantly of that evening in Salisbury Road when the glass was shattered, the story was ended and my dear friend Edward finally—as my mother used to say—passed through the veil.
“I hope, as you listen and transcribe, that my words might someday find an outlet amongst your other, more noteworthy, publications, and that my brief account of the last days of my friend, the writer and naturalist, might sit alongside The Time-Fliers, or A Story of the Present-Time on Heddy’s bookshelves in the red-hued warmth of the drawing room in the Salisbury Road.”
❡ The End ❡