To the Reader

Photos by El Bibliomata
Photos by El Bibliomata

By now, you know me. You know what I’m like. And so, when I received an urgent letter from Lescaut during my own birthday supper, I’m sure you won’t think less of me for not jumping out of my chair, extinguishing the candles and escorting the best and brightest of Parisian society to the street, right in the middle of the second course. Lescaut was by this time a social pariah despite my best efforts to endear him to others. My social standing was already in question, guilt by association, and I do not think it is vain to feel proud of the fact that I had not abandoned him all together. My manservant slipped me the letter, I read it discreetly yet in full view so as not to arouse suspicion, and I handed it back to him without show, all the while laughing at an amusing anecdote being told by Mlle. B—. In short, I bit my tongue and waited until supper had ended, the last carriage had been hailed and my servant had retired to bed.[private]

By the sole lamp of the library, I took the letter and read it again: “Dearest Pierre, I am not long for this world. This time, I’m serious. God knows what will be met on the other side. Please come immediately. The only thing keeping me here is the bond of our friendship.  I would hate to cut it so abruptly without showing you the proper courtesies of our long and dear association. Lescaut.”

It was now gone midnight and the letter had been received at half past ten. Yes, if you must know, I did feel guilty, but in my defense this wasn’t the first such letter I had received and despite the late hour, I donned coat, hat, and umbrella, braved the lamp-lit streets (on foot, hired carriages being few and far between at that hour) and made my way to my old friend’s house as quickly as I could go.

I knocked on the door—once, twice, thrice—with no satisfaction. I felt my temper rise. The hallway was dark through the front door window. Hardly surprising. It was no secret that he had had squandered his inheritance—a vast fortune—on his machinery and his toys. It was the talk of high-society, how he had dismissed all of his servants and now lived alone. Indeed, he owed me several hundred francs, which I hadn’t the least hope of reclaiming.

I shimmied my way around the edge of his garden, surveying window after window, which were all, of course, darkened with curtains drawn. It was only when I came to small, ground level window, the window of the pantry, that I found a faint glimmer of activity. Like the sparks of a smithy, the glimmer of busy human hands making itself known.

‘Lescaut! Lescaut!’ I whispered and then banged with my fists in intervals of two minutes and more. Eventually I heard the front door open and from the darkness, my friend’s voice hissed ‘Pierre? Is that you? What in the Devil’s name are you doing in the garden?’ What in the Devil indeed.

It was typical of my friend’s situation, mentally and financially, that he offered me no refreshment nor did he even bother lighting a lamp. I would have wagered that he had not seen daylight or Christian company for some months, judging by the sordidness of his dress and his unkempt beard. “Pierre,” he muttered again and again, “how good of you to come.” Yet his mind was clearly elsewhere. He did not look me in the eye or greet me with a kiss, but simply closed the door behind me and proceeded through the labyrinth of his manor to the pantry. I followed as quickly as I could, but my eyes were not accustomed to the dark as his were, and although I had been in the house many times before, and had many fond memories of the literary salons we held while students in the Sorbonne, I quickly lost track of him. It was only when I heard and followed his shouts of “Pierre! Blast you, where are you?” that I found the stairs down to the pantry, and the damnation to which they led.

I followed his voice down the treacherous steps, guided by the feel of the walls and the flashes from below. When I stepped down into the room, he seemed to have forgotten me again, and was hunched over a machine I find difficult to describe, somewhat like a clock with lightning jumping from one hand to the other. There was ivory in it, and some transparent crystalline substance, and beneath it a carriage, with a leather seat and some leavers.

“Lescaut, what—what is this?”

He turned to me. He wore around his neck the darkened glass goggles of an engineer and his famous toothy grin, once the bewitchment of Paris, held the glow of the machine like a battery.

“I’ve done it, Pierre,” he said, “just like we always dreamed.”

“What have you done?”

His smile faded and for a moment I thought he would dismiss me entirely and turn back to his infernal machine.

“It is true. How sad. I had almost forgotten what you are.”

“What am I, Lescaut?”

“You are a simple construct” He said, “A tool of the story. You have no memory beyond the previous page.”

“I don’t follow you, Lescaut. I remember everything. I remember our friendship. I remember the Sorbonne.”

“Exposition” he spat. I was now in the middle of the room, halfway between him and the machine. “You’re not even really French. None of us are.”

We all knew this of course. It was very fashionable when we were young to discuss these ideas—what did it mean to be characters in a story? We were any less real for being fictional? Etc, etc. It was all very exciting as a student but then we grew out of it. You start thinking to yourself “So what if this delicious bread is just a string of adjectives and nouns?” And you eat the bread. “Who cares of this woman is just a metaphor?” and you dance with the lady. We had all accepted this long ago—all except Lescaut.

“You could come with me, Pierre.”

“Where are you going? What is this machine?”

He pointed his finger, at first I thought he was pointing at me, but he was pointing at the page, out of the page, out of the story, towards you.

“To live. To really live.”

And you are not living here? What’s wrong with here?

He laughed. That same haughty laugh I remembered from the Sorbonne, when anyone would even dare to engage him in debate.

“Come on old friend,” I pleaded. “Let’s drink some wine and argue like the good old days.”

“There were no good old days.” He lifted the goggles to his face, “that is a fiction.”

I still remember one of our final salons, when we considered the possibility that the author was dead, and that we were therefore free to be and do whatever we wanted. Lescaut disagreed. “The author is only dead,” he said, “if the story is any damn good. And you gentlemen are caricatures.” This was the end of our philosophical soirées. His invitations to supper were politely declined and whenever a party was being thrown by high society I was asked to attend alone. On lazy days, I would make sure to visit him, but I found him harder and harder to converse with. He muttered under his breath like a madman, “Lescaut broke the bread and passed it to his friend Pierre. Pierre didn’t eat and eyed Lescaut apprehensively.” Needless to say, it is uncomfortable hearing your own actions narrated back to you in such a way, so my visits became less and less frequent.

Lescaut walked passed me and sat into the machine. He turned away from and pulled a lever. The clock hands began to sizzle and the carriage rumbled. He tied himself in and began twisting knobs and checking gauges.

“This is it Pierre.” He was barely audible over the roar of the thing’s engines.

The heat was unbearable.

“I go now into that uncharted land—to the author, to life.”

I edged my way closer to the machine, I grabbed one of the copper cables connecting the machine to whatever powered it. The pain was immense, it seared my skin and I recoiled. I fell back to the hard floor and covered my face—the room was blindingly illuminated. Then all went dark and it was hours before I awoke again.

I do not know what happened to Lescaut. Whether he managed to bridge the gap between our world and yours. I do know that his “death” had the most profound affect on the very people who had previously ridiculed him. They talked of him now like he was a misunderstood genius. His ideas, they claimed, were revolutionary—his life and works debated endlessly in the Sorbonne.[/private]

John Keating

About John Keating

John Keating lives in Cork, Ireland where he co-edits The Penny Dreadful literary magazine.

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