Monday, September 15, 2008

Chapter Two: Mortem absque damnum

“Gentlemen, I call on you so precipitously this morning on the saddest of circumstances. You were both acquainted with my husband, the Baron?”

We had indeed come to know that singular person, in this same sitting room, in the course of the Adventure of “Non-vixit” where we knew him by turns as willful client, fearsome ally and cunning antagonist.

“The Baron is no more,” she announced. “He was found dead yesterday morning in his bed.”

“Your husband’s passing is the most grievous and deplorable news. He was as like a hero of Homer’s myth, as any I should hope to meet. It is a great loss to our country and our kingdom to have lost our greatest peer.” said Aisyln gravely.

The Baroness acknowledged this.

“Yet I have come to you, Professor Thomas Aislyn, and you, Doctor Whits-Hansom, because of the most unusual and perplexing circumstances of my late husband’s most untimely passing,” said the Baroness.

My friend gave a most natural bow, folded in him from his noble Hungarian side.

“We are entirely your creatures to command,” assented my friend.

I felt, all at once, acutely for the lady. The sudden, prolonged and poorly explained reclusion of the Baron _________ had been the occasion for the lowest and most common sort of hypothesis. There was, however, little that the Baron did not dare to know. There was not a more vigorous, ambitious, singular and dangerous man in the city. The Baron was, by turns, tyrant and reformer, hero and scoundrel, libertine and defender of the faith. The Baron was a man of great energy and vitality who simply had to experience everything directly himself, in his own immense person, before forming his own fierce, adamant and aristocratic opinion. As a young man, the Baron saw no reason he could not do as he pleased and cohabit freely: so he believed in free love, and the equality of classes and sexes. He had never seen God, and so he was a blasphemous freethinker. He had, however, seen things clamoring on Qomolangma and so believed in the Migoi and so ran afoul of the Royal Society (who declined to credit his climb or his observations). Then he decided the Migoi were angels, and so became a positively Tostoyian reformer.

His marriage to the Lady Girrot had been his great salvation from his own seemingly boundless nature. Vela Girrot was herself a singular and daring creature, a woman who had studied mathematics, a Godwinite and, many said, a féministe. They seemed a brilliant match of two intransigents and, as many had hoped, the beautiful Girrot had finally given the Baron a domestic cast.

As such, the Baron had lately condescended to simple politics, where his views had, however, not become any less interesting or more cohesive. He was, however, a man of incredible stature, so partisans of all kinds sought to capture his support, without reaping the tempest of his opinions. His mere presence induced unthinkable allegiances and impossible violent schisms and at least two vituperative opposing broadsides a day, of which, on occasion, he could be the author of both and same. His disappearance of late, then, required an explanation, and yet, to the scandal of society, no credible euphemism presented itself. That such a character should have now left the stage entirely, without another word or line was unthinkable.

“He died,” said the Baroness “apparently
in his sleep.

This was indeed perplexing. The Baron was a vigorous and exceptional man: a master huntsman, a mountaineer, a boxer and a gymnast, champion of any sport he cared to compete in. That he should die in his bed seemed the least likely of all places and while sleeping the least likely of occupations.

“The doctors of the Royal College cannot explain it. They could find nothing wrong with him. Nothing at all. No ailment. No injury. No reason he should be dead rather than living.”

“How was the Baron the day previous?” I asked.

“He was,” paused the Baroness “as before: well. There was nothing that threatened his health.”

The Baroness was quiet. Aislyn, too, was silent. This became somewhat problematic after a time.

Finally, the Baroness asked, “Can you gentlemen not help me?”

“Well, Baroness, this distressing event is indeed confused with perplexing circumstances. Yet, I cannot say what service, exactly, we can render. My friend, Doctor Whits-Hansom has been of the greatest aid to me as my physician, and I also so trained at Wien. Yet we are not medical investigators. I know my fellows at the Royal College; they are the supreme experts in matters physiological and mechanical. If the cause of your husband’s untimely passing remains opaque to them, then it is not a matter our science can recover.”

“Do you not see?” implored the Baroness, “the Baron was

“I see,” said Aislyn.

“Why do you think he was murdered?” I asked, because I did not.

“I do not think he was murdered, gentlemen. I know it.”

“Did the doctors find any signs of assault or injury?”


“Were there signs of struggle or poison? A cry or disturbance in the night?”

“Neither tumult, nor poison, nor cry in the night.”

“Had the Baron been threatened, had his enemies made motions against him?”

“They are cowards all. They would not dare. Our home is a fortress sure. Our servants loyal. The Baron had taken to locking himself in. Even I had not the key. It took hours for a team of firemen to cut their way in.”

“Why should we say that he was murdered?”

“Because he was” asserted the Baroness.

"I see," I said.

Typically, my friend seemed to pay no attention whatsoever to my questions or their answers. He looked distractedly in the corner. If one did not know better, one would imagine he was trying to choose between the rug and the curtains.

At the stroke of the clock, he stood up.

"Please, Baroness, accept my deepest and most personal expression of sympathy for your loss. I wish I had but the gifts to offer you aid or comfort. I do not know if that great man has gone to Olympus or Valhalla, but I am certain he is in a better place among his true peers" said Aislyn.

It was not in the Baroness' experience or expectation to be refused, much less dismissed and she colored fiercely.

"You will not help me at all then?" she managed.

"How great lady, can we help you? If you would have a physician's aid, you must submit to his frankness and speak in explicit natural terms. You know your husband to be a victim of bloody murder, but dare not speak how you know" stated Aislyn.

"The Baron shared with me a single geste," said Aislyn "but for such a man, that single occasion gave him to me thrice. He was not a man that could be confounded by shame and on the occasions he stood in this room, he spoke his mind quite directly and without reserve."

"To have loved such a man, is to have loved much harsh truth as well. So I cannot imagine that there is much that you would hesitate to speak upon either. Indeed, your own bearing is such that I can see for certain that you were very much at least his match."

"So if there is something you will not speak, it must be a supreme vice from your perspective indeed. I would spare your feelings entirely, but that is against your present purpose and will not avenge your husband's wrongful murder. So I shall take the shortest path, that it might be the kindest and most just available to us."

"Of the Baron's motives, it cannot have been his pride, for that was something never hidden from anyone, but rather his emblem. Likewise, his wrath proceeded him like a wave. The combined action of both in his bloodstream surely made him immune to envy. Why then did the Baron lock his door -or rather what reason could there be of which you would not speak?"

"It cannot be the simple scarlet of pruience. The Baron denied himself nothing and you are too independently minded, unconventional and worldly to feign any shame at this. He thought his habits simply natural, as his other appetites -which rules out gluttony. As for greed I doubt there was much that the Baron wished to possess that he did not."

"So if there were any failing too shameful to admit, then it must be the remainder. Tell me, then, why had the Baron been sleeping so much? Why did he spend so much time in bed, to the point of locking himself in?”

A quiver sprinkled on the Baronesses’ countenance and she turned away.

At the turn of her back my friend unfolded himself.

“Please great lady,” he began.

“You’ve been brave, so very brave –and correct, in coming all this way to see me. You cannot go back now. Give me leave to serve, aid and defend. Grant me the high privilege of answering your question.”

“It was the dream,” she said.

The rest came with great difficulty, but with practiced and exact words: for months, the Baron had been plagued with strange dreams. This was the explanation for the Baron’s reclusion of late and his torpor. He would lie in bed all day trying to remember and puzzle out his dreams, and drift off hoping to experience them again. This past month he had become obsessed with trying to capture one in particular to the point of trying to deliberately induce it. It was a dream of growing horns.

This filled the Baroness with mortification and shame.

“But these past weeks, he had another dream, a dream of dying. In his bed, in his sleep.
On a certain date…”

My friend spoke very clearly and unaffectedly as upon a matter of fact: ”You were exactly right to come to me. There does not exist another mind anywhere that can answer this riddle.”