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Authors: Elizabeth Hand

Mortal Love

BOOK: Mortal Love
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Aestival Tide
Icarus Descending
Waking the Moon
Last Summer at Mars Hill
Black Light
Generation Loss*
Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories
Radiant Days
Available Dark
Errantry: Strange Stories*
Wylding Hall

* Also available from Small Beer Press

Mortal Love

a novel

Elizabeth Hand

Small Beer Press
Easthampton, Mass.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to reprint excerpts from the following:

“The Fish of Broceliande,” by Charles Williams, from “Taliessin Through Logres,” in
The Region of the Summer Stars and Taliessin Through Logres
by Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, Eerdsmans Publishers. By permission of David Higham Associates.

“To Bring the Dead to Life” and “On Portents,” by Robert Graves, from
Complete Poems,
by permission of Carcanet Press Limited.

“Bi-Focal,” copyright 1954, 1998 by the Estate of William Stafford. Reprinted from
The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems
with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real.

MORTAL LOVE Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Hand. All rights reserved.

First published by HarperCollins. Small Beer Press edition first published in 2015.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data for the original edition:

Hand, Elizabeth.

Mortal love : a novel / Elizabeth Hand.—1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN 0-06-105170-5

1. Creation (Literary, artistic, etc.)—Fiction. 2. London (England)—Fiction. 3. New York (N.Y.)—Fiction. 4. Artists—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3558.A4619M67 2004


For David Streitfeld

“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.”

As fire burns the leaf
and out of the green appears
the vein in the center line
and the legend veins under there,

So, the world happens twice—
once what we see it as;
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is.

—William Stafford,

During the night, if another world enters the one in which we ordinarily live, we call it a dream. When it enters in daylight, we often call it illness.

—Robert Shuman

Painters are apt to end pessimists.

—Hope Mirrlees,


I thank the Maine Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts for a grant that helped make this work possible.

Eternal gratitude to my agent, Martha Millard, still sole proprietor of the world's only full-service literary agency. My heartfelt thanks to my editor, Diana Gill, and to Jennifer Brehl, both of Morrow; and to my former editor, Caitlin Blasdell, who read the earliest draft of this manuscript.

During the last five years, a number of people read various versions of this book, under its various titles, and offered suggestions to improve it. I owe a profound debt to Peter Straub, John Clute, Bob Morales, Paul Witcover, Bill Sheehan, Eddie O'Brien, Ellen Datlow, Christopher Schelling, and especially John Crowley.

My friend Ben Smith offered help and encouragement in a dark time. He didn't live to see this book completed, but I wouldn't have finished it without him.

Judith Clute offered round-the-clock assistance with fact checking on London. Mike Harrison helped me with the proper terminology to describe the Cornish cliffs near Tintagel. Judith Beale offered a portal into Highbury Fields, Anne Wittman one into Muswell Hill. My love and thanks to them, and to my other friends and extended family in North London, for sharing their time and knowledge with me. Most of all, my love and gratitude to John Clute, my compass in Camden Town, North Penwith, and beyond.

Mortal Love
is an imaginary tree with roots in the real world. There is a seemingly infinite amount of information in written and illustrative form relating to the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their circle. Whenever possible, I drew on primary sources and contemporary accounts, including Georgiana Burne-Jones's
Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones
, Algernon Swinburne's collected letters,
The Home Life of Swinburne
by Clara Watts-Dunton, and the correspondence of John and Effie Ruskin and J. E. Millais compiled in Mary Lutyens's
Millais and the Ruskins
, among many others. Gay Daly's
Pre-Raphaelites in Love
and the work of Jan Marsh, including
Pre-Raphaelite Women
, provided invaluable insights into the distaff side of the PRB. John M. MacGregor's
The Discovery of the Art of the Insane
opened a window for me many years ago, as has his subsequent work on visionary artists. For information on nineteenth-century madhouses in the United Kingdom, I have drawn from the work of Janet Oppenheimer, Ellen Dwyer, Andrew Scull, and W. F. Bynum, among others. For more information about the Victorian fascination with fairies, I recommend Carole G. Silver's
Strange and Secret Peoples
Victorian Fairy Painting
, the catalog of a 1999 show at the Royal Academy. For biographical details of the great fairy painter Richard Dadd, I am indebted to Patricia Allderidge's
The Late Richard Dadd
Richard Dadd: The Rock and Castle of Seclusion
, by David Greysmith. Richard M. Dorson's
The British Folklorists: A History
is an interesting account of various folklorists, including Lady Wilde and Andrew Lang.

The tale of Queen Herla (“The dog has not jumped down yet”) is adapted from “King Herla,” derived from Walter Map's
De Nugis Curialium
, and recorded by Katherine Briggs in volume 1 of
A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales
. There are several versions of the Wooing of Etain, including one recorded by Lady Gregory and another by Lady Wilde. Excerpts from “Kyng Orfew” are from the version in
Breton Lays in Middle English,
edited by Thomas C. Rumble. Any errors or omissions are strictly my own and will be corrected in future editions.

For more information, visit my website, Winterlong:

Part One

The Green Girl

In 1839 there was published a Method of Designating Colors as a solution of the problem proposed by the first chairman of the Inter-Society Color Council, E. N. Gathercoal, who said, “A means of designating colors…is desired; such designation to be sufficiently standardized as to be acceptable and usable by Science, sufficiently broad to be appreciated and used by Science, Art, and Industry, and sufficiently commonplace to be understood, at least in a general way, by the whole public.”

Under proper conditions the color names agree well with common usage. Use of other light sources will yield object colors not correctly described by these names.

—The Inter-Society Color Council Method of Designating Colors


Lost on Both Sides

he letter was written in German.
Learmont recognized the hand as that of Dr. Hoffmann, head physician at the mental hospital in Frankfurt—his friend and colleague, a man who had played host to him three decades earlier, in 1842. Since then their friendship had been maintained exclusively through correspondence, despite Hoffmann's written adjurations that Learmont was always welcome at his home, and that Hoffmann's wife, Therese, wished to be remembered to him with all good grace, and (more recently) that the three Hoffmann children were now no longer children but themselves nearly as old as the two physicians had been when first they met.

We would not recognize each other now, Thomas my friend,
read Learmont.
I pray that Time has been gentler to you than it has been to those poor souls in my care.

Learmont lifted his head to gaze out the window of the inn where he was staying, near Wallingham in Northumberland. Sleet spattered the stony path that traversed a long incline toward the moors, all but invisible behind a shifting veil of gray and white.
We would not recognize each other now.
Thomas Learmont thought wryly that quite the opposite was true: Hoffmann would have no trouble at all recognizing his old friend, because in thirty years Learmont had aged not a whit. With a sigh he glanced back down at the letter.

It is a distressing topic I now wish to draw to your attention, dear Thomas, and a puzzling one. I know that you recall many years hence asking me to inform you if ever one of my female patients should exhibit certain traits, of which you have long made practice of examining and treating. My own hospital continues to deal first and foremost with children and young persons whose infirmities cause them great turmoil as they forge their ways into respectability. So it was these five months past that a young woman was commended into my care by an acquaintance who requested that I not question him as to his relationship with her. I think you will understand my meaning here. My friend is a composer, promising though not well known, and this woman had sought him out after hearing a recital of his music at a small party. She gave her name as Isolde, but my friend said this was a romantic affectation, that as a child she had seen the modern opera performed—a wicked parental betrayal if true!—and that her Christian name was Marta.

She had no family in Frankfurt. She told me first that she had been abandoned by a married lover (as indeed she had) but at other times suggested that she had in fact abandoned her own husband. She certainly suffered from
dementia praecox
and seemed to be arrested in that state between maidenhood and womanhood, when girls are most at risk of falling prey to their latent impulses.

She displayed clear signs of inversion; sometimes her facial appearance seemed quite frankly masculine, a puzzling anomaly for which I could find no explanation. Her behavior toward me was wanton, and I administered hydrotherapy hoping to cure it. It was during this treatment that her behavior grew markedly more extreme, and put me in mind of writing to you.

She did not resist her hours in the bathing-closet, nor did she indicate in any way that she noticed when the temperature of the shower-hoses changed, from frigid to hot. Rather, she
to the water, and when I began to make note of her conversation, it grew clear that she imagined herself to be an Undine. As in the verses—
Know you the Nixies, so strange and so fair? Black their eyes and green their hair…

Learmont felt a familiar pounding in his chest, the taste of green apple on his tongue, the sound of wind in the leaves.

Again, I must point to the danger that the fantasias of Opera sometimes present to the female temperament! Her ravings indicated that she alternately viewed me as her husband, her lover, and her gaoler: not uncommon when dealing with such women
in extremis.
On the fourth day, her behavior in the bathing-closet became so extreme that I was forced to administer a sedative.

Learmont hurriedly turned to the last page.

. . . continued to administer the sedative cure. This arrested her behavior, but she grew increasingly listless.

I had begun an earlier draft of this letter to you, Thomas, in hopes of enlisting your opinion and perhaps your services, when very early yesterday morning the matron woke me in my bed at home, screaming that the hospital was ablaze. With all haste I returned, to find that the building—thank God!—was not ablaze, but only a single room. This was the cell to which Marta had been appointed.

And in which, alas, she perished! And not alone, for in the room I discovered the charred corpse of another patient. The night matron insisted there had been no candle or lantern left in the room and that the man must have brought one with him.

I spent many hours sifting through the remains, but of the girl found nothing except her shoes. I have yet to learn whether a key was stolen by the man with her or if the girl herself somehow granted him entry. He was a harmless fellow, given to fanciful writings which I enjoyed, and sadly his stories all seem to have perished with him, as I found no sign of his papers in his cell.

Marta's fate serves to illustrate too clearly the fury which base passion arouses in the female, if untempered by mother-love or the steadying embrace of a husband. Reimerich Kinderlieb might have found some grim humor in her fate, but I do not! My friend's grief was well salted with guilt when I brought the news to him. I could give him nothing but the poor girl's shoes and a box of ashes which he has pledged to throw into the river.

So, my old friend, I deeply regret that I could not share this opportunity for you to expand upon your studies of female alienism, and perhaps effect a cure. I hope my failure will not hinder you from calling me Friend, who has remained one for these thirty years, though at much distance. I continue to read with great interest the articles you have sent me from your London Folk-Lore Society, though I translate them slowly and with I am sure some amusing results. I pray that God keep you in His grace, and that before we are both given to Him we may one day raise voices in laughter together, as we did so long ago.

Ever Yours Sincerely,
Heinrich Hoffmann

Learmont set the pages aside. His hand shook as he wiped the corner of his eye.

Gone again.

As a boy he had been entrusted with a young brachet while his father and the other men went hunting. Thomas had taken the dog to the top of a hill overlooking the river. The dog was untrained, so restive it seemed in danger of choking itself upon its leather leash as it yanked the boy through stands of alder and gorse. He had begged for the chance to go with his father, just as he had begged for the dog.

But by the end of several hours, he hated the animal, a loathing mixed with pity, that it should be so stupid, and helpless, and utterly dependent upon a hapless, exhausted boy. He remembered standing atop the hill, the brachet wheezing and making a horrible gargling sound as it strained at the lead, while the summer sun slid down to meet the river below. When he finally opened his fingers and let go the lead, the dog shot off, yelping joyfully. And Learmont felt a sickly exultation, knowing that he had been the cause of its torment as well as of its release, knowing he would be punished when his father returned—the brachet would, no doubt, tangle itself upon an overhanging limb and die.

He ran down the hill in pursuit, but it was too late, the brachet's yelps were lost in the twilight sounds of water gurgling, wood doves calling, the distant music of hounds and men. He had found an oak near the river's edge and thrown himself on the moss beneath to await his father's return.

Now, at the inn, Learmont felt the same way: feverish, his blood roiling. He thought of poor Hoffmann holding a pair of smoking shoes and laughed out loud, then reached for the shears in his back trouser pocket.

You are very young,
the woman by the river had said to him. He had fallen asleep, and for a moment thought she was his mother, before remembering that his mother was dead.
You are very young,
she said again, wonderingly, then knelt to lay her head in his lap, undoing his breeches with long thin fingers.

Gone gone,
he thought, and savagely began to cut Hoffmann's letters to shreds. A tallow candle guttered in a tin holder at his elbow; when the desk was littered with strips of paper, he began to feed them, in twos and threes, to the flame.

He had come to Wallingham to see another acquaintance, the poet Swinburne, but Swinburne, too, was gone, to London. Ashes settled in drifts upon the desk; Learmont swept his hand across the surface, scattering them. He lifted one hand and held it above the candle, then slowly lowered it until the flame seared his palm. He held it there, his arm rigid and the smell of singed meat filling the chamber. Finally he gave a small gasp and let his arm fall heavily to the table. The flame flickered but did not go out: a bead of translucent fat trickled from the candle to the tabletop. Learmont turned his hand back and forth, gently tugging at the sleeve of his cotton shirt to reveal an arm latticed with older scars, red and pale blue, ice white, petal-shaped scars like the one that bloomed upon his palm and others that formed the fan-shaped imprints of a hand.

He would find her. He would go to London and seek her there, question his associates at the Folk-Lore Society and the Metropolitan Lunacy Commission.

No sooner had the thought come to him than he knew she would go there, too; though she would take care to avoid Bethlem Hospital. She would seek out Swinburne or someone like him; pounce on him like an owl upon a vole, then spread her wings looking for other prey. She would travel more swiftly than Learmont, and she would travel unknown: he must leave immediately.

Learmont lowered his head and licked his palm, the skin fiery beneath his tongue. Then he retrieved his long-handled shears and slipped them into his trouser pocket, gathered his few things, and went to arrange for a coach.

Several weeks passed.
Now it was December, and the nights seemed endless, especially in North London. On a narrow street, the poet Swinburne stood, swaying slightly with drink and excitement.

“‘Red, red blude,'” he sang aloud, and laughed. He had just come from a gathering of the Cannibal Club at Bartolini's, where they had raised a toast to Burton, exiled to Trieste, and Swinburne had to hold his nose to keep from expiring in laughter at a rude joke played upon their waiter. After the meal he had wanted to walk, alone—he loved walking—and so he'd wandered for hours until he made his way here, through the warren of streets that separated Islington's army of black-clad clerks from their places of employment in the City.

As he walked the poet talked to himself. “‘There's nothing foul that we commit/But what we write and what we shit./There's nothing reeks that can't be shunt/Between the arsehole and the cunt./There's nothing…'”

The clerks had with the evening dispersed, to bleak terraces asquall with infants and the unceasing gravel cough of London's poor. The yellow-green night haze bore the charnel stink of the great river, two miles southward. From Highbury Fields came the sound of the steam fair's carousel and the cries of children. Swinburne walked and talked, arms swinging wildly, making queer pinwheeling pirouettes into the street at the approach of another pedestrian and giving a shrill paroquet squawk of dismay or amusement. Now and then he would produce a silver flask of brandy—a legacy of Burton's—and open it to wave beneath his nostrils, as though it were a nosegay that might drive away the pervasive stink of frying fish. Then he would drink, and weave on through the shadows of the long winter dusk.

He was a small man, his elfin face and ginger hair already graying from drink; so small that one might almost mistake him for a foot soldier in the legion of women—laundresses, prostitutes, children—who made a Sunday of Mondays, giving themselves over to such drunken excess that more than once he had to step over a figure sprawled insensible across the path, her face smeared with filth and her petticoats smelling of vomit and semen.

“‘…nothing fair lies in the muck/That we won't meet, then mount and fuck….'”

He giggled, his laughter rising to a shriek as he saw ahead of him a signpost swinging in front of a corner gin mill. The carved plank showed the image of two hands, each holding a glass, and below them a font of white spume.


St. Drustan's Well

“Saints bugger me, bugger me,” Swinburne sang, then stopped.

Beneath the sign stood a woman. She wore a heavy wool mantle over a stiff black silk dress, good fabric though frayed; a housekeeper's garb. She had neither bonnet nor kerchief; her graying hair was tightly pulled back above a high smooth forehead. As Swinburne approached, she did not look away but lifted her head to meet his gaze.

“Medusa!” shrieked Swinburne, and clapped his hands against his cheeks. “Swine swan! Such a thing, poor thing!”

Her lower jaw was gone, eaten away so that a spur of soft-looking black bone remained, like a bit of charred wood. But her eyes were sly and mocking, a pellucid blue in the thin light cast by the window of the Everlasting Arms, and her voice was sweet and coaxing.

“My mistress said I should meet you here, sir.”

“Mistress! Monstrous!” Swinburne pulled his cloak tight, peering at her. “Phossy jaw? Poor Flossie.”

His hand reached for a coin to give her—he was a kind man, especially in his cups—but the woman shook her head, sliding forward to grasp his wrist. The poet snatched away his hand. The woman laughed.

“No money, sir—just follow me—”

Her hands slipped back beneath her cloak; he noted that she did not wear gloves, but not that her fingernails had the deep-blue glow of a lit gas mantle.

“Follow you?” he asked.

“Yes.” She tilted her head so that he had a clear view of her ruined face. Swinburne swallowed, thinking of the pain she must endure, felt a flicker of desire, and without a word nodded. The woman stepped into the street. With a quick look over her shoulder, she fled down an alley, so narrow the protruding gables of the structures fronting it met and blotted out what remained of twilight.

BOOK: Mortal Love
3.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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