Providence, Rhode Island
The home of the widow Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman
November 9, 1848
“I beg of you to hear me, Helen!”
His voice rang shrill through the house, funneling up the narrow stairwell and down the hall, muffled little by the barrier of her bedroom door.
Pen in hand, Helen stared at the blank sheet of paper that waited on her writing desk. In her other hand, she clutched her white, lace-trimmed handkerchief, and the saccharine aroma of the ether contained within the cloth enticed her to breathe from its folds again.
She resisted, her focus remaining on the parchment.
But the promise of an empty page did little to ease the poetess’s mind the way it might have on a quieter morning. Even the ether, with its power to lull her senses, could do nothing to slow the palpitations of her agitated heart. Not with her ears attuned to the beseeching roars of the man whose recent behavior both confused and terrified her.
“Helen, without you I am lost. Lost!” he shouted, the anguished plea like a cry from hell itself.
It was true that she was hiding from him, firm in her decision to wait him out as she would a storm. She told herself, again, that she could not see him like this, fearful less of what words might pass between them—even of what answer she might give him—than of what she would find if she dared to look too closely into those eyes.
“A single word! One! That is all I ask.”
“That is enough, Mr. Poe.”
At the sound of her mother’s sharpened tone, Helen glanced toward the door, the tight ringlets of her dark-brown hair bouncing against her cheeks.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” her mother went on. “There is simply no excuse for this beastly conduct.”
Helen could tell her mother’s patience had fled. Her indignation had at last morphed into fury, and it would not be long now until one of them would bend to the breaking point.
Goodness knew what would happen then. . . .
Clearly something had to give. Someone.
Despite her trepidation, Helen knew that if any semblance of peace was to be restored to her home—to her spirit—that someone would have to be her.
“Helen! I pray that you are listening,” he railed, continuing to ignore her mother’s upbraiding. “Hear me in this—in what is certain to be my final plea. My life, my very soul depends upon you!”
Helen dropped her pen to the desk, rising. She pressed her handkerchief to her lips, closed her eyes, and inhaled. Then she made her way to the door and, opening it, frowned at finding her sister, Anna, standing just outside with her back pressed to the wall.
“You’re not going down there,” Anna said, her expression stern. “Ignore him as you have been. Let him crow on like his damnable raven until he has no voice left with which to squawk.”
Helen’s name rose once again from the first-floor foyer, this time in a ragged scream.
Anna sneered. “Lord in heaven, have you ever heard anything so awful in your life?”
“Has he made any mention of what might have prompted this . . . visit?” Helen asked in a murmur, not wanting him to hear her, to know his howling had succeeded in drawing her from her seclusion.
“I think impropriety is the word you are searching for,” Anna replied in a hiss. “And yes. He did attempt to explain to Mother that after sitting for a daguerreotype this morning, he saw a white face in the studio’s light-reflecting mirror. It stared straight at him, he said, with eyes black as night.”
“Those were his words exactly?”
“He is mad, Helen. Do not go to him.”
Helen made no reply but took her first steps toward the stairwell, skirts rustling.
“Do you care this little for me?” she heard him wail. “Do you doubt me? Or suspect I have not told you the truth entirely?”
“It is no use shouting these delirious inquiries, Mr. Poe,” her mother said. “It should be beyond clear to you that my daughter has no wish to entertain your call.”
“I am doomed, Helen! Doomed! In time and eternity. All I ask is for one word. Say yes, Helen. Say yes and save this poor wretch. Say what you have not yet said. That you do love me!”
“Edgar.” Helen spoke his name as she stepped onto the topmost stair. At the sound of her voice, his head jerked up.
Dressed in his shirtsleeves, his dark hair wild, his eyes crazed, he looked, to Helen, the very portrait of insanity.
She drew in a sharp breath. Clutching tightly to the banister, she steeled herself and began to descend, closing the distance between them one tremulous step at a time.