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FICTION

Poe and Randolph

by Harry Henson


Edgar Poe sketched a young girl’s nude corpse on the margin of his manuscript and stared through the tavern windows out onto Broad Street. It was late afternoon of a cold November day, and the sun having descended behind the three story building opposite, a black servant was moving softly through the taproom lighting candles.

Behind Poe, three lawyers were hunched over a punch bowl. Poe pretended to write, but he was trying to overhear their conversation.

“It was a vile thing.”

“And no one had any suspicion?”

“Not a soul. The youngest girl tried to get the neighbors to listen, but naturally they were reluctant to credit such a horrid tale.”

“Not even the minister?”

“Not until a passer-by heard those sounds. It was there in the pasture, as it had been for months, and the cattle just chewing their cuds and flicking their tails idly at the flies.” “You know who they say is the Lord of the Flies, I suppose?”

One of the three, noticing Poe's narrowed bright eyes, suddenly grasped his companion's elbow and whispered.

All three stiffened and lowered their voices to murmurs.

Poe flushed and gulped his wine. He wondered if he should challenge the lawyer. He refilled his glass, alarmed at how light the bottle had become.

He sketched a raven beside the dead young girl he had already drawn.

There was only one more coin in his purse. He wasn't certain whether it was gold or silver. Pay for another bottle? But then what would he do for lodging?

Was there time to send a servant boy over to the house to Ma before Allan, that brute, came home from the office? Would Jethro, that traitor, even take a message from him into her?

He began scribbling hastily, mentally cursing himself for being so prideful not to have done it earlier. “Ma, I am desperate. I have been bad I know, Pa is right, but I am starving now, and the landlord threatens me with JAIL. I promise, I swear on my poor lost mother's soul this is the last time, the very last, oh, save me from this fate, it is so cold tonight, and who knows what sort of people will be celled there, and no fire, you know I have always been delicate, you know SHE also perished from consumption. Five Dollars…”

Poe crossed out the last two words.

“Ten dollars will pay all my debt here, and pay fare for Baltimore, where I have family who shall give me shelter until I can find a position commensurate with my station and talents. Your dear loving son, Eddie. PS. Give my love to Pa.”

 Poe rang the bell, and a red-haired servant youth appeared. Poe gave the lad his message, with a promise of five cents if he returned within ten minutes with an answer, and firm instructions to deliver it to no one but the addressee.

 Encouraged, Poe poured the last of the bottle into his glass.

 The lawyers at the next table had wearied of whispering.

 “Well, I believe at last Randolph sees the game is at an end. All of his proposals have been voted down in committee, and the rats are all swimming for shore, leaving him only such freaks as Gilmore and Simms for allies.”

 “Thank God the convention recesses on Friday,” said one of them. “If I have to hear him squeaking ‘Mr Speaker! Mr. Speaker!’ again I believe I should run out into the lawn mad as Nebuchadnezzar and bite grass myself.”

 “He is lodging here, you know. I overheard Tyler say that he, Randolph had the whole house in an uproar last night shooting off his pistols.”

“Indeed.”

“Some of the servants whispered that he raved a devil was looking through the window at him.”

 “More likely he had looked into a mirror.”

 “Dark doings, dark things,” suddenly spoke the third, who had said nothing until now, a very old man.

 “Well, gentlemen, I must be off.” He dropped silver coins onto the table. The other two assisted him in rising and walked him to the door.

 Poe eyed the coins glittering in the candlelight. He was about to rise and slip one or two of them into his pocket when one of the lawyers came striding back to drink off the rest of their bottle.

 Poe dropped his eyes to his manuscript.

 A black servant woman cleaning off the tables stopped beside Poe and looked at his bottle.

 “Not yet,” Said Poe, pretending to write.

 Outside, the light was fading. The wind had picked up. Brown leaves flew across the cobblestones. It blew down the chimney scattering sparks over the heart-of-pine flooring. A carriage and four came rattling and jingling down the street and lurched to a halt.

 The lawyer finished with his bottle, every drop gone, Poe noted sourly. He picked up his cane and stood.

 The door banged open and an astonishing individual strode inside. Crane-like legs in glistening leather riding boots seemed to rise endlessly to an equally long and equally thin torso. Silver spurs jangled behind him. A hound panted at his heels. He slapped a silver-handed riding crop at his boots. He had the complexion and dark hair of an Indian, and the face of a fifteen-year-old boy, but he was wrinkled as a prune. He was as elegantly dressed as an English duke.

 An equally elegantly attired black servant came in behind him and softly closed the door.

Good lord, Poe thought. John Randolph himself!

 Immediately, the lawyer placed himself in Randolph's path.

 “Mr. Randolph, I believe you know of me! I am Francis Marion Jones of Wheeling and I do not stand aside for mountebank Tory Papist traitors!”

 Randolph looked Jones up and down.

 “Well, sir, I always do.”

 Randolph stepped around Jones and stalked into the room. All the loungers in the bar broke into derisive laughter. Jones flushed and fled, slamming the door behind him.

 Randolph stood with his long legs against the back of the fire. The hound stretched out at his feet.

 Now that Poe could view Randolph more clearly, he saw that the bizarrely adolescent face was not only wrinkled as an old apple, but cracked and seamed like an ancient portrait in oil.

 The servant took Randolph's cloak and riding whip.

 Catching Randolph's eye, Poe politely inclined his head.

 “Your servant, sir!” Randolph said in a squeak and bowed from the waist.

 “Juba! Fetch me a bottle of the best Madeira in the house, and order dinner.”

 “Yes,sir. Would you care now for a cigar as you wait, Mr. Randolph?”

 “No, Juba, I'll have my cigar after dinner. I am certain the food will be as vile as usual, and it will take the taste of it away somewhat.”

 Juba bowed and withdrew. Randolph began to walk back and forth with his hands behind his back. His lips moved, he muttered beneath his breath. The spurs clanked and clinked. The hound lazily thumped its tail.

 Randolph reminded Poe of a pair of enormous oyster tongs endowed with unnatural quickness. He scribbled the notion down before he forgot it.

 Juba returned with a bottle and glass and a platter of bread. Randolph seated himself, facing the entrance. He drew a pistol from his coat and placed it on the table.

 Dinner was brought in. Juba stood behind Randolph's chair, cutting his meat, removing plates, filing his glass.

 Servants and employees and even people from the street kept peeping in to get a look at the famous man. Randolph paid them no attention.

 Quickly bored by the novelty of John Randolph, Poe was chewing the end of his pen. He tapped it against his teeth, and glanced at the window each time a boy ran past. It was growing dark. The clouds were red. A couple of stars twinkled. His glass was nearly empty.

At last the door opened and the messenger ran in. Taking off his cap, he handed Poe a folded sheet of paper and stood waiting, eyes lowered. Red haired and freckled, the youth could easily have passed for a white boy. He in fact, bore a striking resemblance to Thomas Jefferson, whom Poe had once spoken with briefly while a student at the University, before the vile Allan had cut off his support.

Shaking his head, Poe opened the letter. To his dismay, no bank note was inside.

His heart sank further when he saw the handwriting.


“Sir:
“I must insist that you communicate no more pleas for assistance or promises of reformation to this household, or attempt to contact any of its members. My wife is ill, and can endure no disturbances of the type which you are all too talented at creating.

“Should you not abide by my request, I shall be forced to raise the issue with the necessary authorities.

“Your obt, etc…

John Allen.”

 Poe looked at the servant lad.

 “Did you not understand my instruction that you were to place this letter in Mrs. Allan's hands and no one else in that house?” He asked quietly.

 “Yes sir, and that's exactly what I did. The gentleman gave me the letter for you.”

 Poe balled up the paper and threw it in the fire.

 “What is your name, young man? Where are you from?”  “My name is Hemings sir, and I come from Charlottesville.”

  “I thought as much. You are free?”

 “Yes sir.”

 “So am I. Not always an enviable station, it seems, because we shall likely both go supperless to bed tonight. You may depart.”

 The boy gave Poe a sullen look and slouched off.

 Poe looked at his empty glass. With a sigh he began to gather up his manuscripts.

 Well, he would just have to brazen it out with the landlord. He would tell them to put his dinner on the bill. Then he would sneak out sometime during the night. Unfortunately, he would have to leave his grip. Perhaps he could get some money from Shipton to leave town. Maybe from the dock he would write the landlord and tell him to give the bill to Allan.

 The wind rattled the windowpanes strongly, and cold currents blew through the room. Poe struggled into his greatcoat, placed his papers under his arm and reached for his cane.

 “Young man!” Randolph said and rose from his seat, hazel eyes glittering, even more reminiscent of a pair of animated oyster tongues as he seemed to rise endlessly. “Would you care for a glass of wine? Please join me.”

 Scarcely able to believe his luck, Poe turned to face the famous statesman.

 Juba had already placed a glass on the board and filled it.

 “Your servant, Mr. Randolph,” Poe bowed, and once Randolph sat down, he seated himself. His hand twitched, but he didn't reach for the glass.

 “I believe I know you sir,” Randolph said, and not until he reached for his own glass did Poe reach for his.

 “I had meant only to ask you if did not notice the peculiar resemblance that lad of yours bore to our late sage of the mountains, but nil nisi bonum mortuum, I suppose. Allan, Allan, are you not a connection of his?” Randolph looked over his shoulder at Juba. “That fellow Allan, Juba. Is this young man not some relation?”

 “Yes, Mr. Randolph,” Juba murmured, bending to speak in Randolph's ear, “The young man is Mr. Allan's stepson. Mr. Allan of Allan and Allan. He had acted for you on occasion as your agent in Glasgow.”

 “ Ah, yes. Allan the merchant. A Scotsman. A Presbyterian. Hah!” said Randolph.

 “We are estranged, Mr. Randolph,” Poe said. “And I have no prospects, sir. I am a poet, sir.”

 “And those are your manuscripts, I suppose? Might I see? Were I to be deprived of the pleasure I have derived from the literatures of England, Rome and Greece, little would remain of my life, sir.”

 Eagerly Poe handed over his papers. Juba immediately refilled his glass. Randolph scanned the pages, sharp eyes gleaming, muttering and repeating verses.

 “Yes, excellently good, young man, your name is Poe, is that correct?”

 “Yes, sir.”

 “What an untoward experience in this degenerate age in Virginia to come across a youth capable, not only of reading, but writing verse! Juba! Take a look.”

 To Poe's astonishment, Randolph's servant took his manuscript and perused it.

 “Yes, Mr. Randolph, it is quite original. Very striking metaphors and turns of phrases. 'Clad all in white, upon a violet bank, I saw thee half reclining, while the moon fell on the upturned faces of roses.” Stunning is it not, Mr. Randolph?”

 “I wrote that at the age of fourteen, Mr. Randolph,” Poe said.

 “That slave reads?” said one of the gawking loungers.

 “And why should he not read, sir,” replied Randolph, “I imagine you cannot?”

 “Well ... ain't it against the law to teach a slave to read?”

 “What! Shall my domestic arrangements to be dictated to me by job holders? Am I a slave, sir, to be told what to do with my own servants? Shall a pack of uncouth, uneducated, tobacco-spitting deputy sheriffs and Baptist parsons presume to interfere in the private affairs of a gentleman! They also have a law against billiard tables if you please, driven through by Baptists! St Thomas of CANTINGBEERY, up there among the clouds, holy apostle of liberty as he fancied himself to be, removed his table from beneath his dome room when they passed the infamous statute, but I sir, had I the space for such an item I would put it right in, sir, right in! And invite the sheriff and the grand jury both out to play a rack—and on a Sunday!”

“I only asked a question,” the idler said. “I didn't know. I didn't mean no harm.”

 “Not knowing, sir, is the characteristic feature of this land, along with the expressing of opinions when totally ignorant of the issues involved.”

 Poe, annoyed that Randolph’s attention had been diverted from his verse, gulped down the wine. Immediately Juba refilled his glass.

 Randolph, the most famous orator of the age, was delivering a full oration now, holding forth about the degeneracy of the times, the stupidity and venality of politicians, the disgusting spread of the Baptists and Methodists, the theft of the ancient glebe lands from the established Church of England, the ruin of those churches, the filthiness of the tavern accommodations on the road to Washington, the untrustworthiness of Henry Clay, the genius of Edmund Burke, the failure of the last Jacobite uprising due to the unworthiness of Prince Charles Stuart, and the base ingratitude of his slaves.

 By this point, Randolph had only Poe's attention.

 “I was dying sir, dying,” said Randolph, almost sobbing, “I had entered into the dark valley of despair, sir, and I lifted up my head and wept, sir, wept at their callous unconcern.”

 Juba uncorked a fresh bottle and kept their glasses full.

 Poe too was now well-lit. He removed his greatcoat and loosened his collar. “I too, sir, I too have felt the pangs of cold rejection,” Poe said, actually sobbing, “the cold stiletto of betrayal,” He grew confidential and leaned over the table. “They took me as a child, helpless waif that I was, and told the one who was my natural protector, my grandfather, General David Poe, among the highest aristocracy of Maryland, that they would make me their son and cherish me and raise me as their own. And what have they done? Kicked me into the cold to beg for my bread, Mr. Randolph. That is the cherishing that Presbyterian has done for me!”

 After a moment Poe said, “Are you listening?”

 Randolph's attention was in fact focused on an ebony pill box, whose lid he was unscrewing.

 Poe's eyes narrowed with interest. He saw a number of black tablets inside the box.

 Juba, stood behind his master's chair, immaculately clad, nearly impassive, but Poe could see in the set of his mouth disapproval, annoyance and even fear.

 Politely, Randolph offered one, and Poe quickly tossed it down. Randolph swallowed his own along with a full glass of wine.

 Immediately, Randolph's hazel eyes gleamed brighter. The flesh on his face tightened until Poe in amazement found himself staring at a death's head with a great beaked Roman nose. “Young man, I am in constant pain,” Randolph said. “I am in fact dying, my physicians tell me I have little time, wine is my chief support. I do not care. All my hopes are in the grave, all those I loved are departed, there is no hope for me, none. I live in darkness. But you, my young poet. Live in the sun. Live your life in the sun. Look at the light. When I was a young man I rejected it and now I can scarcely make my way back because it so dark here. But whatever my end, I shall face it like a Virginia gentleman and a Randolph.”

 “I am going to Baltimore,” Poe mumbled, as his reason became unhinged by whatever drug he had ingested.

 “Please don't tell anybody. But, Mr. Randolph, I love the night. If you could just see the beauty.”

 Abruptly, Poe opened his mouth, The light went out of his eyes. His head fell onto the table, knocking over his glass. Wine flowed around his lips and nose.

 Juba discreetly mopped it up. Randolph's hound walked over and sniffed at Poe, then backed away.

 “I have seen the beauty of night,” Randolph remarked, and pulled on his gloves.

  Around him the creatures of the night were coming out all throughout the tavern taproom. A hydra leered at him. A nymph pranced naked. Little demons climbed up the candlesticks and stuck their tongues out at him.

 Provoked by one particularly lewd little devil, Randolph flicked it off the candlestick with the tip of his cane.

 It flew through the air and struck Poe's nose.

 Poe snored.

 * * *

Harry Henson is a writer living in Richmond County on the Northern Neck.



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