Seven Stars: Of Laudanum and Luminescence

Oxford Street in Walworth London the late 1800s.
Oxford Street, Walworth, London Borough of Southwark, in the late 1800s

In the Shadow of the Seven Stars

Related song: Ultraviolet

Albert couldn’t find his spectacles. Someone was in his room; he could feel it. He reached for his nightstand, groping anxiously in the dark for the lamp beside his bed. His mind muddled, he tried desperately to snap it into focus. Even without the benefit of sight, he knew that someone or something was close by. Every hair on his body stood on end and his heart was pounding. But who was there? He scanned the room but could only make out the rough shapes of the objects nearest his bed. The rest of the room was shrouded in darkness. He had a terrifying feeling he was being watched, but could not bring the intruder into focus.

Albert felt a chill run through his body and shuddered uncontrollably. The room was much colder than it had been when he fell asleep. He listened intently for any sound that might give away the intruder’s position, but he couldn’t hear a thing. He wanted to cry out for help, but something held him back.

In the most commanding voice he could muster, he whispered hoarsely, “Who are you and what do you want?”

The answer was complete silence.

Where are my damn glasses? thought Albert. What I would give for a match.

His hand finally found the base of the lamp. If it couldn’t be lit, he still might brandish it as a weapon in his own defense. He slid the lamp toward him to get a better grip on it. As he lifted it toward him, the filament suddenly flamed. The light was immediate and blinding. Resisting the urge to throw the lamp across the room, Albert managed to hold it upright in his trembling hands.

As the shock to his pupils wore off, he could see his entire room laid out in front of him; there was no trace of an intruder. The objects that had seemed so menacing in the dark a few moments before now appeared completely mundane – a chair with his pants folded neatly over it, a writing table, a small dresser with his shaving kit on top, a small hat stand. Albert squinted his eyes to study the window at the far end of the room; nothing seemed out of place. Even without his glasses, he could plainly see that no one was there.

What had just happened? Albert’s mind was filling with questions.

As his mind cleared, Albert came up with a plausible explanation for the night’s events. He must have forgotten to put the light out before he fell asleep. He had been reading, of course. The book on his bed and his glasses beside it were evidence that he had fallen asleep mid-sentence. The lamp must have burned low without fully extinguishing the wick. While moving the lamp, he must have turned it up again, thus, triggering it to rekindle, resulting in the burst of light.

But it all felt so real. Albert’s body shook in the bed. He had been having trouble ordering his thoughts lately, so he could no longer assume with certainty that his mind was faultless. His self-medicating with a tincture of Laudanum did not appear to be helping him sleep through the nights and it certainly was not limiting the visions he had been recently been experiencing. In fact, over the past few weeks, he had begun to question his ability to credibly report reality. He felt as if his brain was covered with a thin layer of gauze that added an indeterminable amount of haziness to all of his reflections.

This made sorting out the events of each day, especially ones as incredible as tonight’s, a much more difficult task. Because of this, Albert felt a need to be meticulous in his accounting for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. He had gotten into the habit of taking notes as often as possible when these strange events occurred. It was his goal to determine whether the visions he was having were due to a deficiency in his brain or if there were possibly natural explanations for them. His guess was the former, yet he held out strongly for the latter; keeping his sanity was now a matter of prime importance.

He had heard of visitations such as this, of course, but those had come from the realms of literature and the pseudo-sciences. To his mind, visitations of this kind only happened to quacks and the mentally deficient. Ghostly apparitions and haunted houses were fictions that charlatans and storytellers peddled to the gullible and unwary. All serious men of science were in agreement on this matter.

Yet the contradictions between Albert’s long-held beliefs and his current experiences were beginning to take a toll on his mind. He wondered if tonight’s events were related to Frances’ murder; her death had certainly occupied his thoughts ever since that horrible night. This fact was not lost on him. His recent troubles had begun shortly after witnessing that gruesome event.

He had tried to put it out of his mind, as anyone might, though his efforts had come to naught. Seeing a woman murdered before his very eyes was simply something he could not forget. It did not help the situation in the least that he had once loved that very same woman and, yet, could not save her from such a ghastly fate. For better or worse, he had made the decision to keep what he had seen that night to himself and there was certainly no going back on it now.

Had she truly been in his room? Albert wondered. Is she watching me now even as I sit?

Albert could not begin to imagine the purpose of these visitations, if that’s what they were. The phantasm had yet to impart anything to him, except, perhaps, the disheartening feeling that something unfathomable and disconcerting was being asked of him. But what this was he did not know. He began to write an account of the night’s events as best as he could describe them, feeling certain that it would all read like gibberish in the morning.

Albert finished his writing and returned to bed. He was determined to get a good night’s sleep in spite of the interruption. He made certain to put his glasses on the nightstand where they belonged and he extinguished his lamp completely, yet he lay awake for the better part of an hour listening intently for the ghost’s return while mulling over the series of strange occurrences. He wondered what it all could mean. After turning it all over in his mind several times, Albert slipped out of awareness and into a restless slumber.

Several hours later Albert awoke with a start. He had slept longer than usual and knew instinctively that he was late for a morning business appointment. As he rushed to ready himself, he glanced at his writing table where he saw several pieces of disheveled paper.

What on earth was I writing last night? Albert wondered.

His memories of the night’s events were beginning to filter back into his conscious mind. He picked up a sheet that appeared to be signed with red ink. On closer inspection, he saw that it was a short a contract written in his own hand and signed – not with ink but with something that looked like dried blood. He stared uncomprehendingly at his own name, Albert Charles Beardsley, as it dawned on him that the contract in question involved the custody of his soul.

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