“The celebrated violinist Fritz Kreisler reports from New York that at various corners on its streets, he played as a street musician more than thirty times, and none of the passersby ever took any notice of him or realized it was a virtuoso playing: the voice of a siren, searchlights, elegant fashion, tennis matches; ticktock, ticktock…” — Miroslav Krleža, On the Edge of Reason

To a more worldly person, the series of events by which Elizabeth Wilkins, an uneducated, unassuming, yet not undeserving servant of the late and much honored Mr. Charles Ludwig Taylor, had come to possess not one, but two of the most desirable properties in town, situated on opposite corners of the town square, would not raise a suspicious eyebrow, but merely confirm the deeply-held beliefs of the cynic in all of us. These events weighed on Ms. Wilkins as she sat alone yet surrounded. Surrounded not by those of her own class and station, surrounded not by friends or family, those precious few we are much in need of while grieving, but by the town’s elites: the peers, and even those few betters, of Mr. Taylor, whose home, one of the two buildings under consideration, the crowd now occupied.

This was not a celebration of life, as some are wont to call a gathering in remembrance of the deceased. I ask you, is it not more apt to celebrate life by the living of it? As Socrates said, brew of hemlock working its baleful magic, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows.” Here is a man who lived! Yet, between us, Ms. Wilkins, possessing only a simple peasant’s wisdom, could make nothing of Socrates, nor would she care a whit for any deep thinker that came before Our Lord and Savior. Let us not hold such simplicity against her, for it has its place.

Elizabeth remained in mourning long after others had put away their tailored blacks. Mourning still the loss of the only gentleman who had been kind to her, who had listened to her every word, never once having expressed impatience or proving to be exasperated by the sort of “prattle”—as Elizabeth termed her own discourse—that certainly was beneath his learning and interests. In short, he was as kind as he was patient.

Ms. Wilkins had gone her whole life without a husband. There was a cabman who made overtures. Upon first inspection, he seemed a fine man, if a bit dull. “Has more in common with his horses than his passengers,” observed Elizabeth. Upon closer inspection, the cabman proved a drunkard, and Ms. Wilkins, an ardent abstainer from spirits, would not have him. As drink was a common habit and a lauded pastime among men of all walks of life, Ms. Wilkins was spared from further enquiries. In this way, Mr. Charles Ludwig Taylor, he insisted she call him Charles; which, for years, she steadfastly refused, until one evening, while walking together, the sun aglow on the horizon and the birds calling notes of love to one another in the trees, she became possessed by the spirit of familiarity and referred to him by his Christian name; from then on, the spell of propriety was broken, and she fulfilled his wish; although, she always said his name with a deferential tone; as I said, it was in this way the widow, for Charles had been married, a fruitful union resulting in several children, only one surviving, a son, Mathew, acted, in all ways deserving merit, as Elizabeth’s husband and mate.

Elizabeth had not met his former wife. Her employment began after the fact. She had met Mathew only once, during a brief visit between his trips abroad. The mood was tense. There seemed some quiet, persistent, tension-filled watchfulness between father and son. Elizabeth was mortified. She imagined the worst. What did the son hold against the father? Or was it the other way around? She knew not. The visit was as short as it was strained. Mathew took a gift of money, for a father, although wounded, loses not his generous spirit. This sent the son to the wilds of Central America, from there, only God knows where his restless soul drove him.

Yet, he returned. In returning, he brought with him the Devil’s share of misfortune. Elizabeth was witness to several weeks of fencing maneuvers between father and son. Mathew raised again and again the question of his inheritance. He pressed his father for an advance. He said, in terms not quite holding to logic or right conduct, that he owed allegiance to shamans, witches, and others, whom he said he could not mention, “for their names are a blight upon the Earth.” The young man, by all appearances straight, tall, athletic, even beautiful, would be taken off guard by nervous fits, lose his color and constitution, and be bedridden, feverish, and delirious for days.

At such times, Elizabeth took coffee and water to Charles at his son’s bedside. The elder watched, prayed, and cried over the younger. He asked Elizabeth to lend her powers of faith. She clasped hands and bent her head next to him; although, not liking Mathew, she had to fall back on her belief in the redeeming power of Christ’s love. After recovering from one such spell, Mathew seemed somehow changed. His color never returned. His blonde hair hung lifeless and grey. His eyes were often bloodshot; their color, too, was diminished. Dark shadows passed over his features, even in the full light of day.

If you’ve read your Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, than you remember that moment when the monster first approaches Viktor, after having strangled an innocent youth, his nephew, and placed the blame on another poor, innocent soul, a close family friend, thus multiplying the ruinous effects of his cruelty. Recall then, the deep conviction and hatred the monster held in every fiber of his disastrously manufactured being. Remember the demands the created placed on the creator, demands that were impossible to meet, yet suicide to deny. This was how Mathew turned on his own father. Elizabeth heard only scraps of the whispered conversation, yet, she knew, it was the inheritance again. Dr. Frankenstein came more slowly to his conviction than did Charles Ludwig Taylor.

The son was refused.

He quit his father’s house.

The very next morning, Elizabeth found Charles at the bottom of the stairs.

Mathew was located, informed, and questioned. No fault could be found, no evidence brought to bear on the matter. Overruling common sense, it was decided that Charles had fouled up a journey he had taken a thousand times before, a simple descent his muscles had long ago locked into their memory. Perhaps he suffered a moment of weakness, as men his age often do. Elizabeth had heard nothing, so deep and peaceful was her slumber. Not only had she been asleep, but her room was at the back of the house, Charles’s room at the front, and it was the front stairs that had thrown up unaccustomed obstacles.

The son at once began to liquidate his father’s estate. Family heirlooms that had been passed down for generations; objets d’art, portraits of cherished ancestors, furniture of the finest New England craftsmanship, brought at great expense and difficulty from those environs, even gold and silver jewelry once belonging to his own dear and departed mother, were sold not to the highest bidder, but to the first. Ms. Wilkins was instructed to facilitate the removal of said objects. If there was a discrepancy over money, Mathew could be found at the tavern.

Elizabeth, in a state of shock and deep grief, was of no mind to attend to such matters. She hid in her room and wept. What priceless treasures of memory walked themselves out of the house with nary a soul to stop them, she knew not. All had become a great tragedy she was unable to bear.

There came another tragic turn of events, equal to the first in unexpectedness, surpassing it in violence. Mathew, volatile when drunk, found himself in a disagreement. The cause of this argument? The suspicious death of his father was the source. There were lingering doubts as to Mathew’s innocence. Having been called out for patricide, Mathew produced a knife and, in full view of everyone present, killed his accuser.

The trial, a potentially endless source of public scandal, was woefully brief. Mathew made no pretensions towards innocence. He denied his lawyer, mocked and ridiculed both judge and jury, and in all ways comported himself as an unredeemable rogue…or a madman. A priest was consulted to inquire if the young man had a spiritual affliction. The priest, after an interview that chilled him, concluded that yes, indeed, evil spirits possessed the lad. The most efficient solution, in the priest’s view, was death by hanging. As un-Christian as this view was, the priest was untroubled by questions of morality, for he saw unnatural evil in those sunken, bloodshot eyes. Taking the man as evil, and the evil as the man, he formed a rapid and sure opinion.

The jury did likewise. Guilt was pronounced, gallows erected.

And so, we arrive in the parlor of Mr. Charles Ludwig Taylor, deceased. Note that the windows provide an unobstructed view of events. The scaffold has been built ten yards from the very spot in which the son lay low the father. We know—for we are wise, are we not—that the judgement of guilt encompasses not only the knifing—for who was this man to us, nameless as we’ve kept him, a man of no importance, not in the sense that Charles Ludwig Taylor was, him we’ve come to admire—but the finding of guilt, oh what a weighty and exquisite responsibility, contains our righteous judgment of both acts, the former of greater concern to us than the later.

Not only have the town’s elite found it far more comfortable and proper to rise above events, physically and metaphorically, they have also found, I surmise, a sideways sense of justice—or is it morbidity—at occupying the very room in which son and father no doubt quarreled, at the very moment that the son is to be sent up for final judgment; in which, the right thinking of the jury will, without a doubt in the minds of those gathered, be duplicated.

From this, Elizabeth Wilkins is set apart. She is bent under the weight of grief. She has been forced against her Christian sensibility to rent out the windows. No less a personage than the Mayor approached her with this macabre request. With Judas gold in hand, she sits at one moment numb, in another overcome with sorrow. If your sympathies are with her, I applaud you. As for me, I listen to the speech flowing into our shameful, but all too human gathering.

“Mathew Stanley Taylor, having been found guilty, by a jury of your peers, of the crime of willful homicide, you are hereby, before man and God, sentenced to death. Do you have any last words?”

Ah, what eerie laughter! It pains ear and soul! Now the hood is placed over him, obliterating his identity. With his head covered, he is no longer one of us, but merely a symbol, an embodiment of our retribution. The noose is properly fit. Those august men take their places. If I were Camus and this The Stranger, I would point out the cloudless sky, the growing heat of the sun, the copious amount of sweat forming on the brow of our dear Mayor. Won’t he be the first man at the tap for a cool draught!

A hush. A still moment. The birds comply, as do the insects. If a wretched mutt were to cry out, like Diogenes, searching for a human, we would be stirred from our reverie. Not a single child cries. No throats are tickled, save one. No cough breaks our deep meditation. All is quiet. The trap door falls. For a split second, the condemned floats on vaporous wings, then plummets with a whoosh. A crack like no other reverberates over those gathered below, comes up to us, followed by a trembling tenor, taut rope. Forgive me for such thick alliterations. I call attention to myself. The body works out its last bit of life, a vain struggle. We are similarly occupied.

A murmur passes through the crowd. All are in agreement: it was a fine hanging. The body is being cut down. Will they remove the hood? Will he regain his humanity? Yes, certainly, we want to see his face, we must. Elizabeth has seen none of this. Were she given will enough to act, she would have covered her ears. Good thing she did not, as she might have missed the soft sounds of advancing footfalls. Someone on the stairs. Elizabeth looks to the doorway. Whomever it is, they have paused just beyond the threshold.

Well, events are finished. An unfortunate cloud of guilt comes over those gathered. People begin to pass by Elizabeth. The late arrival enters the room. Elizabeth can barely make him out as he moves against grain. Still, keen eyes discern much. She begins to piece together his identity from the fragments she catches.

Is it? No! How could it be? Mathew!

He emerges from the congestion. He stands at the window, looking down. His wrists are harshly red; the twisting, deep-dug ruts of rope mar his flesh. His hair hangs limp, long, but not long enough to hide the twisted, unnatural landscape just above his collar. His neck is variegated; blue, purple, black. It swells to inhuman proportions. The disks are no longer properly stacked. The head sits unnaturally upon its pedestal.

Elizabeth has forgotten the open door. Escape from the supernatural has yet to occur to her, so deep is her shock at the sight of him. She stares, studying him; no, witnessing him, in the way one witnesses his or her own death in a nightmare. The apparition spares her his attention. His body remains on view. The townsfolk pass solemnly by. Have they not, in some way, murdered him? Do they not, now, admire their handiwork? Without turning from the black parade, Mathew inquires of Elizabeth:

“Do you believe in Heaven?”

Although taken aback, she answers in the affirmative.

Now he turns to face her. She sees that his eyes have hemorrhaged, turning black. “Then so too,” he says, his unblinking gaze on her, “must its shadow.” He smirks, “They are perverse watchers, are they not?” he says, glancing over his shoulder through the window to those scattered souls below, his head twisting grotesquely. He returns his black, soulless eyes to Elizabeth. “Would God wish their sordid company in Heaven? Or Satan in Hell?” His laughter echoes about the room, though he himself mingles with the dusty, colorless light and fades from view.