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FICTION: She Has Been Here By Gerry Huntman  

Posted by Scott Wilson

The two officers led the pair of British tourists along Table Rock, the precarious outcrop which touched the corona of Niagara Falls, carefully traversing the ice and sludge that served as their path. The roar of the falls was deafening—in fact its deep, penetrating bass could be heard and felt from the visitors’ hotel. It only took seconds for the frigid cloud of spray to enter and saturate their clothing.

Charles Dickens turned to his travelling secretary, brushing long wet locks from his handsome, boyish face. “George, isn’t this marvellous! Great God! How can any man be disappointed at this!”

George Putnam adjusted his overcoat, shivering from the cold. He moved closer to his friend and patron, so that he could be heard over the noise. “None can, Charles. However, if we stay out here for more than a few more minutes, I suspect we’ll succumb to the cold.” He flapped his arms rigorously, trying to warm them. “I fear that we may even end up frozen solid, and become additions to the scenery.”

Dickens was about to respond with a witty remark, when his eyes adjusted to the concentrated cold and moisture in the air and he saw, with absolute clarity, the intense green hue of the water falling to the frothy, jagged base below. The playwright and novelist was now at a loss for words. He was astonished by the vastness of the scene before him, more so than what he had seen when he and his small entourage had arrived at their hotel that morning.

He focused for a moment on the two dapper officers, who had earlier kindly offered to them, and he observed that they too were struggling with the frigid conditions. He glanced behind and saw Kate and Anne—his wife and her serving maid—rugged up and under a shelter, eagerly waiting their return. Dickens realized that it was time to head back, and mentally noted that he wanted this short excursion to occur again before he left for Montreal.

He stole one last glance at the green wall of water with its billowing, frosty white own exhalation. His breath was suddenly taken away; he was stunned by a vision that nearly pummelled him to his knees. Time seemed to slow to almost a standstill.

Despite the biting, scratching water vapour assailing his eyes, he saw a face forming within the churning whiteness and verdigris before him. It started out as a pale visage of a young and innocent female beauty, becoming, as the fractions of a second slowly passed by, more clear and attractive. Dickens’ eyes widened as he saw dark, curling hair form around the feminine form and then rose-red lips and large, bright blue eyes. Mary! Oh my Lord, it is Mary! It was the face of the sister of his wife, Kate, who had died three years earlier at the tender age of seventeen. It had torn his and Kate’s souls apart. The thought of her still ached like a steel rod that pierced his heart and lungs, and which could never be removed.

Half a second had gone by. Mary’s face started to come to life and her eyes turned to him and formed a deep and penetrating smile, a look of understanding.

She acknowledges me!

A cloud of spray churned up and engulfed the party and Mary disappeared. He thought he heard a fading sigh amidst the cacophony of the falls.

One of the soldiers approached him. “Sir, it’s too cold for a soul to survive here for long! I sincerely recommend our return to your hotel!”

Dickens nodded, but only a small portion of his mind was on what the man had said. He was still shaken to the core by his vision.

George grabbed his shoulder and turned him around, shouting, “Charles! He’s right!”

This time he understood. He could feel the cold and the wet seeping into his bones. “Yes, my friends. We must return.”

They all carefully made their way back to the hotel.

***

Kate studied her husband’s face, and knowing him well, could see that his paleness, and the unusual look in his eyes, was more than just the extremity of the weather or the majestic spectacle that was just witnessed. She locked her arm affectionately around his. The group walked briskly back to the hotel, and Kate nonchalantly whispered in his ear, “Is there something troubling you? Do you want to talk in our room?”

Dickens smiled. “Dearest, nothing escapes your sharp eyes, does it?” He lost focus on the hotel grounds for a few seconds, nearly stumbling on the uneven path. “I do need to go to our room, but…do you mind if I go alone?”

Kate could barely disguise a frown. “I’ve seen that look in your eyes before, Charles. She has been gone a long time now. I don’t want to see you enter that dark place again…”

He stopped walking and held her close, both hands tenderly grasping her waist. “Darling. I need to collect my thoughts. I would be lying if Mary isn’t on my mind right now.” Kate was about to speak again but he squeezed her slightly tighter, conveying the importance of his point. “I swear that I’m fine. There’s something I need to reason out, to reconcile.”

She sighed and nodded. “Go then, but remember that we shared our darkest days together, and benefited from it. I couldn’t have survived without your companionship; our love.”

He placed a lingering kiss on her forehead.

***

He climbed the stairs to his room feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt. He had to understand what he saw at Table Rock before he could explain it to Kate. He swore to himself he would tell her everything.

On closing his door, and subconsciously locking it, he quickly changed into dry clothes and sat at the breakfast table near the French windows that provided a magnificent view of the falls. He poured himself a sherry and, again without thinking, prepared his note paper and ink well and quill.

He was halfway through his second glass of sherry before he was able to think at all.

Mary Hogarth. When he and Kate married Mary was inseparable from her older sister and moved in with the young couple. The teenage girl was full of life—spirit—and for Dickens she was an absolute delight to have in his home. She was bubbly, excitable, and for her age, highly intelligent. She inspired him in his writing and unabashedly critiqued his works—if warranted, it was gratefully accepted, and if not, it allowed him to refine his work nevertheless.

He topped up his glass. This was where there was a long-standing guilt; complication. While Mary was alive he never thought deeply about his feelings for her. There were times when she was an important part of his relationship with Kate—it was impossible to conceive of Kate without Mary, and his feelings, his (dare I say it?) desires, could not separate the two. After she died—that awful year when it was clear her heart was weak and she slowly faded and then passed quietly—Dickens fell into a profound depressed state. The Pickwick Papers was left half written for over a year, and all he could do was exist at the most basic of levels. Many people thought he was finished. What they didn’t know, nor Kate, was that he was also struggling with his feelings for the dead girl. It was shame. He could not—even now—disentangle all the wonderful and pleasurable feelings he had of Mary and find whether one or two of these threads were unwholesome, unnatural, sinful. It ate at his soul like cancer for the past three years, and remnants of the disease still lived in the pit of his stomach. But this did not mean he had no love for Kate—far from it—it was profound and universal. Ironically, this added to his feelings of guilt. He wondered whether that was the real reason why he had to be in his room alone.

His thoughts turned to the apparition.

He was on his fourth sherry.

He tried to recall what the Falls had actually stirred in him prior to his vision of Mary. The immensity of the Falls was there to behold and couldn’t be ignored. It made him feel small and insignificant in this world, where, if he threw himself into the churning ice, water and rocks he could imagine himself being distended, spread out into the universe—no pain, agony and terror—just emersion into oblivion. He laughed. As insignificant as man was in the presence of Niagara Falls, the thoughts it produced were profound and cosmic. Instead of making man trivial it made him master.

He laughed again, embracing the victory of his thinking. He was not awed or terrified by Niagara—he was actually lulled into a sense of contentment. Peace of mind; tranquillity. He was near his Creator. Dickens toasted the Falls and God at the same time, raising his glass. “You have instilled comfort in eternal rest.”

“I am glad,” came a young and familiar voice from behind him.

Dickens turned rapidly, spilling some of his sherry over his notepaper. Before him was Mary, at the tender age of when she died. Instead of dark recesses for eyes and a year’s worth of pain and suffering etched into a sallow face, she was vibrant again. There was colour in her clear and smooth skin; life in her eyes. He fell to the floor on his knees. “Is it really you?”

She wore a white dress that was one of his favourites, and she had no jewellery on her except for a simple silver chain around her neck, caressing her small, milk-white breasts. She smiled and stepped toward the incredulous writer, stopping three feet away.

He rose to his feet and found it difficult to believe how real she looked. There was no wispy apparition before him; he could actually smell her so wonderfully familiar lavender scent. “Why, why are you here?”

“I want you to be happy. I want to ease your suffering.” She was still smiling, but the look in her eyes revealed some solemn purpose.

“I’m a writer. We always suffer.” Dickens felt like an idiot the moment he uttered his words.

Mary’s eyelashes fluttered. “You have a choice on that matter. Perhaps I can help.” She moved closer to him and, to Dickens’ complete surprise, she placed her lips on his and kissed him long and passionately.

Her hands drew him closer to her, and he also tightly held her warm, soft body.

He realized something was wrong. It was not the fact that Mary was so agonizingly substantial, and tasted and smelled so real, but that his passion was not there, or at least did not match hers.

He gently pushed her back and she continued to smile, with a virginal innocence that contrasted with the full blooded passion she had exhibited only moments before.

“What’s wrong, Charles?”

“I, I can’t do this.”

“Why?” she asked.

“It’s not right. I am married and you’re my sister-in-law.”

Her smile disappeared. “Correct, Charles, but there is more that has come out of this test. What did you feel?”

He thought quickly and delved deeply into his own soul. “When I…kissed you, held you, it didn’t seem right. There was no love, not the way I make love with Kate.”

The smile returned to Mary’s face. “There. You have it. Your love for me when I was alive was not for a man for a woman, it was for our profound friendship…the three of us together. It’s that simple. After I died you grieved and it grew into something larger, more complicated. Distorted.” She stepped back a few feet. “You need to understand that you need not suffer now. You should cherish the memories of our time together. I’m at peace—I’m resting in eternity. I am happy.”

Tears started to run down Dickens’ cheeks. “I am so glad you’re happy. But the injustice, the loss…”

Mary placed her right index finger to her lips. “I am happy…”

She faded away.

Charles Dickens, a few weeks after his thirtieth birthday, turned again to the view of the Falls. He looked to the remnants of sherry in his cut crystal glass and wondered if he had imagined it all, if the alcohol had addled his brain. He didn’t care.

He slipped on his winter coat. I can’t wait to tell Kate that she has been here.





Author’s note

This story is set in a scene that is based on fact, and a few phrases are taken from Dickens' published letters. The only liberty I took with regard to setting is that Dickens did not visit Table Rock in winter.

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 2, 2011 at 1:23 PM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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