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Lesser is More

In 1841, I was thirty-two years old, working in New York City as a journalist for the Daily Chronicle. At nights, I scribbled under the aegis of my own muse, publishing the occasional story or poem with a modicum of success. Edmund Lesser also lived in town, though we’d never run into each other.

We’d been best friends as boys at Barston’s Academy for Young Gentlemen until his adoptive father, John Lesser, had forbidden him to become a writer; after that, we no longer had anything in common. By chance we both went to the University of Virginia where I learned that John Lesser had disinherited Edmund—cut him off without a penny. He’d been forced to leave the university, for Lesser had never paid the bills. Edmund, who changed his name back to Perry, had enlisted in the army. Years later, I was pleased to hear he also lived in New York and had been hired as editor of The Town Crier, a new magazine that had received many favorable reviews, though I had not yet subscribed to it.

One day, an envelope arrived at my office. It contained a scribbled note in unfamiliar handwriting shaky as an old man’s. It was signed by Edmund Perry, requesting that I visit him on Chatham Street. It surprised me that the editor of The Town Crier should live at so unsavory an address. But I was curious to see him and learn how he had managed such success after the terrible treatment he’d received from his stepfather. I sent a messenger with my acceptance. I would visit him at the end of my day’s work.

Chatham Street was even grimmer than I’d pictured it, every other storefront a tavern or a dance hall. The streets were not illuminated by the new gas lamps. I imagined a robber lurking in every shadow. My trepidation increased as I approached No. 113, the only door to which opened onto yet another tavern. Obscured by a haze of smoke, solitary men hunkered over their whiskeys and gins, while small groups of the semi-inebriated (and not so semi) shared crude jokes.

“Mr. Perry’s rooms?” I asked the surly bartender.

“Number Five.” He nodded to a set of stairs at the back. I climbed upward, praying the rickety banister would hold and the rotting wood not collapse beneath my feet.

I knocked upon the door marked 5. I heard a shuffle and the scrape of a chair.

“Who—who is there?” came a harried whisper.

“It is I—Harry Stratham. Edmund?”

The door was unlatched but a chain prevented it from opening fully. A haggard face peeked out.

“Harry! Come in. Quickly!”

Edmund opened the door just widely enough for me to squeeze through, and immediately locked it.

He sported a dark moustache, which might have given him a dapper air had the rest of his countenance not been so gravely compromised. Purple bags shadowed his eyes and the left one sagged. Grey streaked his handsome black hair, now thinned. His figure was gaunt, no longer that of the athletic hero of Barston’s. The celebrated editor of The Town Crier, prematurely aged, looked haunted.

“Oh, Harry it’s so good to see you!” A nervous smile spread across those sallow features as he swept a pile of manuscripts from a chair to make room for me. “Sit, sit. Will you join me in a brandy?”

We discussed the vagaries of our careers. Not all of Edmund’s works had met with success. I took the bull by the horns.

“I read the review of your Tamerlane in the Manhattan Review. Damned unfair, I must say.”

“You read it?”

“The poem? Of course. That Drawley! He has nothing better to do than spew his vitriolic attacks against better writers. He’s treated Irving and Dickens just as badly. You mustn’t take it to heart. People only read him to see how vicious he can get.”

Perry tilted back his chair and laughed heartily. “Don’t condemn him. I wrote the review, too.”

“You—what?”

“I wrote Samuel Drawley’s review of Edmund Perry’s Tamerlane. Best publicity I’ve ever gotten. Drawley really helps pay the bills. Remember, I don’t have an inheritance to rely on. Stories in magazines, the occasional book of poems, and the editorship of The Town Crier give me barely enough to live on. Drawley’s vile reviews are very popular. Without him, I couldn’t afford my guests a proper glass of brandy.” He lifted his glass in salute.

I couldn’t help remembering the last time we drank together, just before he left the university, when he’d been reduced to such poverty he didn’t even own a glass. I was sure he remembered it as well.

“Do you follow Worthley’s column in The Tattler?” He picked up a folded copy from his desk.

I nodded. Suddenly, I realized why the name had always seemed familiar. When we were still at Barston’s Edmund had gotten around Lesser’s proscription against writing by using a number of different pseudonyms. Jonathan Worthley was one of them. “Not you, too?”

“The same. Worthley’s been a good champion of my poetry. I was most grateful for his defense of my Tamerlane. His opinions rarely coincide with those of Drawley.” His eyebrows quirked up. I must have imagined that the bags under his eyes had vanished. “There are others, too.” He pointed to neat piles of papers on his desk. Could each one really represent a different pseudonym?

A knock came at the door.

Edmund started. A look of fear swallowed up his bonhomie.

“Harry, will you—would you—answer it for me?” he pleaded, as if asking me to dispatch a venomous serpent.

“Of course.” I rose. He placed a hand on my shoulder to stay me.

“Use the chain. Don’t let him in.”

I did as he asked.

“Is this the abode of Eddie Dessavoo?” asked a young man who shifted from foot to foot.

Before I could answer, Edmund called out, “Edouard Desavoue no longer lives here. He did, but he’s gone.”

“I have a bill from Markham’s,” the young man insisted. “Dessavoo owes Markham’s thirty dollars and 43 cents. I’ve been sent to collect.”

Rather than appearing distressed, Edmund seemed relieved. “I don’t know where he’s disappeared to,” he called out. “No forwarding address. You must seek him elsewhere.”

I apologized to the messenger, who reluctantly departed, and shut the door. Edmund jumped up to lock it.

“Does this happen often? Who is this Desavoue?”

Edmund laughed nervously. “I am.” He drained his glass and promptly poured himself another. “Desavoue became necessary when I fell behind on some bills. I attempted to start my own magazine and needed capital. My major subscribers pulled out at the last minute. Desavoue wrote a series of articles on the plight of struggling new publications in America.”

I laughed, meaning to congratulate him on his successful ploy, the daring of the fox eluding the hounds. But Edmund’s haunted look returned.

“That’s why I’ve asked you here,” he whispered. He glanced about the room as if the walls conspired against him. “I trust you, Harry. You’ve never stabbed me in the back or disappointed me. Never made a promise you didn’t keep.”

I felt a hot flush of shame, remembering how little I’d done for him when he’d lost his inheritance and all semblance of family. Ah. Desavoue—French for “disinherited.”

“You can count on me, Edmund,” I said, and meant it.

“It is about these—others—that I mean to speak to you.” He licked his lips, gathering his thoughts, or his courage.

“When I was a boy—Edmund Lesser—I wondered about Edmund Perry, what he might have been like. What if my father had not…disappeared? What if my mother had lived? What if I’d grown up knowing her and my brother David? I would have taken to the stage like my parents…I think I would have liked that.”

“You would have flourished there,” I assured him.

“I wondered just how differently I would have turned out. Happier, surely. I would have known a mother’s love. Fanny Lesser was distant, lukewarm in her affections. She and my stepfather went away to England for a year when I was seven, did you know? Left me behind with the servants. Lesser never sent a single letter. Fanny just wrote now and then, reminding me to be a good boy, occasionally sending her love. It’s a very different thing to be sent love, than to have it given you, I think.

“Even without a mother and a brother—a brother! If only I’d gotten to know him.! If only my uncle had taken me in…As a boy, I often daydreamed about these alternate lives. So it was always easy for me to create these…others. My imagination never falters. I just pick a name, a profession, a personality.

“As I’ve grown older, these…others…have come in handy. When I enlisted, I created Harrison Ellmore to put everything of Edmund Lesser behind me.” He spat at the name of his detested once-benefactor. “But it turned out fortuitous that I created this new identity. Things started out well for me in the army, but…I ran into some trouble. I received a dishonorable discharge. I’m glad Edmund Perry’s name needn’t be attached to that shameful chapter.

“Some of it was a game. I loved to create new noms de plume. On any given day there might be six pieces by me published in different magazines or newspapers. They were all mine, and no one knew. It was my secret triumph. In print, veiled behind these names, I could glorify my work as Strasser in the Republic, while vilifying that of Le Rennet in the Star-Eagle. I enjoyed duping the reading public. When creditors came hounding me, as so often happened, fictive identities like Desavoue were useful.

“But Harry…” He put his hands to his brow and stopped.

“Whatever it is, Edmund, you can tell me.”

He lifted his head. His eyes were wild. “You’ll think me mad! Perhaps I am, perhaps I am,” he muttered.

I wondered if that truly were the case.

“They’re after me, Harry.”

“Who are?”

His lips trembled.

“The…Others. They are real. And they’ve begun to clamor for their share of the money. But there isn’t enough! I can barely live on it myself. I can’t support them, I can’t!” He flung his arms out in a passion.

“You saw. You saw. Desavoue has run up debts with his tailor—he likes to dress well. Worthley overspends on fine wines. You see what I’m reduced to drinking! Le Rennet is a womanizer. He buys jewels and…makes promises I can’t keep! Strasser wishes to travel abroad.”

My heart broke to hear his ravings.

“You do think me mad,” he said at last.

“I…think you’re under a strain. Edmund, you know you created these personae yourself. The newspaper bylines, the controversies the reviews stir up, the creditors using these names to harass you for payments, all these things lend an air of reality to their existence. You work incessantly, and for little pay. How much sleep do you get?”

He listened with an air of rational calm. “You’re probably right,” he said at last. “I beg of you, Harry, go to the offices of The Town Crier. Augustus Macklin, the publisher, is withholding my first payment. He refuses to send it by courier and I daren’t leave this room, I daren’t! They’re waiting for me. They’ve been stalking me for weeks. Who knows what else they want from me besides money? Macklin will only give the cash to me in person, even if I send him the next installment—it’s not as if I can’t write my columns at home. You must go for me, Harry.”

“But how will that help? He won’t hand over your payment to me, either.”

“No, but some of the Others will be watching and waiting for me there—at least one of them. You can deliver my column and ask Macklin if he’ll give you my money. No harm in trying. But the important thing is…” he grabbed me by the lapels and drew my face right up against his, “I need you to go and see if They really are there, so I can know for certain whether or not I am indeed mad. If I am…I don’t know what I shall do to help myself. And if they are really there—I don’t know what to do about that either. I don’t! But at least I’ll know. I’ll know.” Perspiration beaded Edmund’s forehead. His eyes glittered like a fever victim’s.

I cursed John Lesser. It was his withdrawal of support, coupled with the ban on writing, that had led Edmund to create these fictive selves. Poverty and perpetual struggle had dogged the steps of a man educated as a gentleman, raised with a gentleman’s expectations.

“I’ll go, Edmund. In the meantime, try to rest.”

“Thank you, Stratham. You’re my only friend.” When his hand grasped mine I felt it tremble.

The next morning, I set out early to execute Perry’s request. A light snowfall had already dusted the streets and more was steadily falling. Snow always lends fairy-tale glamour to the New York streets—at least until the soot renders it a grimy grey. I turned down Nassau Street, where most publishers were located, onto Cedar, through alleys that were remnants of the old Indian trails. I arrived at a row of tidy brick buildings. The Town Crier’s headquarters were located up a flight of stairs well-lit by windows looking onto the street. Surely Edmund’s fortune is on the rise, I thought, now that he’s employed by such a thriving, if modest, company. His demented fancy is but a slight setback. I’ll be able to set his mind at ease and all will be well.

A door with “Town Crier” painted in crisp black letters opened into a room containing five or six desks where earnest young men scribbled furiously or scanned lengthy galleys. When I announced my errand, one jumped up and rapped at the door to the publisher’s office.

Augustus Macklin saw me immediately, cordially complimenting me on my work and encouraging me to submit to his magazine. He did not, however, release Edmund’s monies, suggesting that he did so not because he did not trust me to deliver them but because, regrettably, he needed them to lure the wayward editor back to his post. I made my excuses for Edmund the best I could, hinting that he suffered from a contagious but nonetheless not life-threatening illness and thus could not show up in person. Macklin gave me a terse smile and coolly showed me out.

As I wended my way along Hyde Street toward my own office, I heard someone walking behind me. Unlike the major thoroughfares, thronged with carriages and pedestrians as the work day began, this small backstreet was otherwise deserted. I would shortly be passing by both Gowan’s and Wiley and Putnam’s. No reason why I should not check my notebook for titles of books on my list to purchase. I paused to rifle through the pages, though in truth my eyes did not focus on the list. The footsteps behind me stopped as well. When I moved forward, they started up again. I picked up my pace. So did my shadow.

As I stowed the notebook in my jacket pocket I purposefully dropped my pencil in the snow, giving myself a chance to glance behind. Someone indeed lurked there. Instead of pretending he wasn’t on my trail, he gave me a wicked leer. I caught my breath. It was Edmund!

But no, this fellow was older, with a trim brown beard and prodigious side-whiskers. Edmund could not have afforded a pardessus with such luxuriant fur, nor one so well fitted. Yet it was Edmund’s face! How could this be? I shivered at the thought of a supernatural explanation.

Then I realized: this must be his brother, whom he presumed off in Peru. Did David Perry believe Edmund to be Lesser’s heir still? The thought that my friend’s own brother should torture him in an effort to extort money, rather than offering him filial love and support, angered me.

“David Perry. What do you want of me?” I demanded.

The man sneered. “You are mistaken. Jonathan Worthley, at your service, sir.” He doffed his silk topper and bowed.

“Cease this farce. Your brother has never done you any harm. Let him be!”

“I assure you, I have no brother, sir, no flesh and blood relations of any kind. I do not know of what you are speaking.” The man pushed past me and exited onto Nassau Street.

I strode off in anger. It was only when I’d almost turned onto Nassau that I realized that the snowy pavement before me was as white and unsullied as a blank page. I looked back at the path I’d taken. Only the imprints of my own boots appeared in the white powder.

Throughout the day this odd event kept thrusting itself to my attentions. I was so taciturn and pale that my publisher, fearing I was ill, insisted I leave early. I gladly complied. But I did not head for my own apartments. I had to see Edmund.

Now that it was December, the evening gloom fell in early afternoon. Ordinarily the sight of the white flurries set aglow by the gas lamps put me in mind of sylphs and fairies. But this day I noticed instead the bat-like shadows they cast upon the ground. What would I tell Edmund? If I confirmed that the mysterious persons harassing him were not figments of his imagination, how would that help his mental stability? On the other hand, if I said I suspected his brother to be playing tricks on him, surely that would bring him no relief, either. But what of the lack of footprints in the snow?

I continued on my way to Chatham Street, arguing with myself about the possibilities. When I knocked at the door of Room No. 5, I heard murmuring and the sounds of movement.

“Edmund, it’s me, Harry. Let me in.”

The door unlocked. Perry peeked through the chain. “Come in, Stratham,” he said in a strained voice.

As before, he locked the door the instant I pushed myself through. Unlike before, he remained behind me. And we were not alone in the room. Several men waited inside.

“At last. We’ve been waiting for you.” Edmund’s voice seemed strange.

I whirled around. It wasn’t Edmund. It was the man who’d called himself Worthley.

I turned back to the men assembled. “Who are you?” I demanded.

They laughed, the tones ranging from tenor to bass. At exactly the same moment they stopped. The coincidence struck me as very odd.

“Why not introduce ourselves, gentlemen?” The speaker, dressed in a dove-grey suit in the latest Paris fashion, bowed with continental correctness.“Henri Le Rennet.”

“Samuel Drawley,” said a portly fellow whose paunch strained against his waistcoat.

“Wilhelm Strasser.” A lock of tawny hair fell across his forehead. He swept it aside with a manicured hand.

A thin man with melancholy eyes and a guilty expression mumbled, “David Pemberton.” At his utterance I recognized a fellow Bostonian.

“Harrison Ellmore,” snarled a brawny, bearded man. Despite his receding hairline, he struck me as extremely strong and even more dangerous.

“Edouard Desavoue,” drawled a fop in a fine suit with an oversized cravat in the new style.

I recognized all of these names: Edmund’s noms de plume. “Impossible. Those names were made up by my friend when he was a boy. He—”

Why had I not seen it before? Despite the differences in build, coloring and demeanor, each man bore a remarkable resemblance to Edmund Perry.

“Impossible!” I cried again, doubting my own sanity.

The men laughed—once more ending eerily at the same moment.

“Not impossible, as you see,” said Desavoue.

“Your friend Mr. Perry was very gifted,” Drawley remarked.

“W-was?” I sputtered.

In a fluid movement the men stepped aside, forming two groups that parted like stage curtains. If only the scene they revealed had been part of some cheap melodrama. On the floor lay a body, eyes bulging, a rope tightened round his neck as if he were a common criminal. Edmund Perry. He looked so small and vulnerable in his frayed suit.

“Which of you has done this dastardly deed?” I cried, kneeling beside the body in grief. “And why? Why?”

Le Rennet pulled closer. “We had to.”

“Did he not create you? You owe your lives to him!”

“True,” Worthley responded. “But we had only half-lives. We did not draw breath until our twenties.”

“My life didn’t begin till I was thirty-four,” Drawley interrupted.

“He gave us no pasts. No families,” Worthley continued.

“We went on to create our own lives, carve our presents,” Strasser added. “But how can I live without a history? It’s unnatural.”

“He owed us,” Ellmore growled. “He refused to give us what we wanted.”

I had no doubt that this brute had been the one who had garroted Edmund.

“There was only one other way to achieve what we wanted,” resumed Worthley, the apparent leader. “We had to kill Edmund Perry. Once he died, we would cease to be half-fiction and half-flesh. Our lives would become whole.” He breathed deeply. A healthful flush suffused his face, as if a fasting man had just fed. “Already I feel my life fleshing out. I recall my sisters and brothers, my parents, my childhood in Albany.”

Ellmore’s jaw clenched. “Before I joined the army, I committed a string of robberies. And other crimes…” His face became even more savage, if that were possible.

Strasser wept into his hands. “I remember her now. Elena! Elena!” He uncovered his face. “Despite the tragedy of my life…my lost love…I still prefer this pain to the blank slate of my life before. I regret the loss of our creator,” he looked pitying at the corpse of my friend, “but it was necessary.”

“Your selfish desires cannot justify murder!” I cried.

Worthley strode over to me. I took an involuntary step backward. Ellmore positioned himself behind me, blocking my access to the door. “Why, Mr. Stratham, we need you. Now that we have full lives, we wish to live them fully.”

“I shall return to New Orleans,” Desavoue said. “I shall go home, now that I know where home is.” He and the rest closed ranks, hemming me in.

“We cannot have the police dodging our steps,” Pemberton said apologetically.

“Interfering with our futures now that we have pasts,” Drawley said.

“What do you want of me? Just disappear. Go off to wherever the devil you wish to go.”

“We have no desire to be hanged,” Worthley said. “Yesterday I told you I had no brothers. But different though we are…” he nodded at the circle of men, the ones Edmund had called the Others, “in this cause we are all brethren. We would not sacrifice any one of our number to achieve our independence.”

“We require a murderer,” Ellmore said.

“Sorry, Stratham. You’re the only one we can rely on.” Worthley pinned back my arms. Ellmore grabbed the poker from the fireplace and aimed it at my head. I felt the blow and fell, unconscious, to the floor. When I awoke, the Others were gone.

I know my story strains credulity. You say the bartender has testified that no visitors except myself climbed the stairs to Mr. Perry’s room. I well believe it. The Others are not ordinary men of flesh and blood like you and me. I had no reason to murder my dear friend. You must believe me. You must! I swear that everything I’ve told you is true.

A bit about the author:

Sandi Leibowitz is a native New Yorker who writes speculative fiction and poetry, mostly based on fairy-tales, myth and folklore. Her works appear in such places as Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, Niteblade, The Golden Key, Apex and Strange Horizons. One of her poems is forthcoming in Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 5, edited by Ellen Datlow. Visit author page