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Highgate

If you didn’t want me to stay awake, you shouldn’t have left me something to read.

“Then you are quite certain? I do not seek to influence you, my dear Gabriel, merely to assist in anything within my power.”

“No, no, it must be done. My eyes are failing, my hands shake; the name I once hoped to make with my brush must be made now with my pen. I must reclaim those verses for until I have them I can write no others. The permission has been given: let it be done tonight, Charles, that none may gawp at her poor remains.”

“Of course. But you will not come to oversee the procedure?”

“Nay, I could not bear to see her beauty ravaged by decay. I shall wait here till you return. It is my penance, for failing her: I see now, as I was too blind with grief to see then, that my words should not have been buried but used to make my muse immortal. I have rested very ill all these years since; I shall sleep no more till they are back with me.”

“Then I will leave you to your vigil. Be assured, all will be accomplished with the utmost delicacy.”

You called me genius once, not muse. You said my poetry was divine–divine dove, you called me. I knew enough to know it was only the feeble imitation of greater powers: still, I had rather my own words speak for me than yours, my love. Though your words have been mine alone for so long now.

“It is done, Gabriel. None disturbed us and all lies as it did.”

“And … how looked she?”

“It was uncanny. Her hair was still growing, copper red. And her delicate features were quite untouched.”

“Can it be so?”

“In truth, she looked as if she rested–as if she posed, still, for your portrait. The journal lay just as you said, resting against her cheek. Here, it is yours again. There is, ah, a slight odour, but it is only the chemicals that my associate used to treat it.”

“Mine–yes, I had forgot its cover was grey. And my writing – how strange it seems, how neat. These past six years I have been such a wreck that my script crawls across the page like an old man’s.”

“Perhaps this will revive you, then. When you are ready to give them to the world, I will act for you, of course.”

“Yes, yes, indeed. And this verse: I remember the afternoon it was written. It was so bright that I laid aside the commission I had and took to Denmark Hill. And she brought a flask of wine and we drank–but what is this page? I can scarcely read the words, they are dotted with holes.”

“I am afraid there was some damage. Some, ah, inevitable damage.”

Did you think I was alone all this time? Well, but you have had company also, my love–sinuous, burrowing company, working their way through your body, through your soul. Did you think I would not know, wherever I was, if you were with another? Did you think I would lie there as quietly as my portrait-self on your wall and look on unmoved?

It is done. If only that cozening viper Charles holds his tongue, though I fear he will not. But no matter: it was right, it was necessary. My sentimental foolishness is past, the verses were meant to be read and they shall be. Everyone will know how I loved her, how I suffered.

How you suffered.

How I suffered.

How you suffer.

How–how I–how my head aches. The chemical odour from the journal plagues me sorely. I must lay it aside and sleep now. Perhaps tonight I shall not dream of her, dream that she has come back to reproach me for all the betrayals and neglect, for my faithlessness. And perhaps tomorrow I can write again. A tribute to her, of course, to her beauty, untouched by death. She will inspire me, as she used to, it will be as if she is with me.

I will always be with you now.

Always …

If you didn’t want me to come back, you shouldn’t have taken away my book.

 


In 1869, the grave of Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal in London’s Highgate Cemetery was exhumed at the request of her widower, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who wished to retrieve poems he had buried with her six years before. Rossetti’s friend Charles Howell acted for him and claimed that the corpse still had flowing red hair. Lizzie Siddal was herself a poet and artist, though – like the other women associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – she is often portrayed simply as a muse.

A bit about the author:

Andrea Mullaney is a writer, journalist and tutor from Glasgow, Scotland. She has had stories published in various magazines, is TV Critic of The Scotsman newspaper and won the Europe & Canada region of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2012. She’s working on a novel set in 19th Century China and blogs at www.andreamullaney.com Visit author page