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A Black Letter

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Santa Maria Zobenigo, Venice
Jonathan Strange to the reverend Henry Woodhope Dec 9th 1816

I have had the most unexpected visit in the last few days, it almost took my mind off Arabella in that dreadful prison. But no matter, he has gone now and so I shall continue [a couple of lines are unintelligible] still my conscience does not allow me to be at peace and I feel l have somehow worsened my betrayal towards her. But there are moments of clearness of the mind before the ones of crazed [the words are incomprehensible]
Do come quickly! I fear I cannot possibly go on like this. I fear I might actually be going mad ...

 

As soon as he reached Venice, major Grant saw the imposing pillar of darkness, even more so against the whiteness of the city, and thought it was the most impressive and unpleasant thing he'd ever seen, and he'd seen many things, both impressive and unpleasant. He wasn't entirely sure even Merlin could conjure up something like that. Yet there it was.
And, according to the gondolieri Grant had asked about it in Italian, that was exactly the place where the magician ought to be.
He walked towards it through Venice's narrow streets and bridges, and saw that they became barer and quieter and darker the closer he got. Finally he was standing right before it.
He would have been lying if he said he wasn't a little frightened at the idea of having to step trough that tower of black smoke. It was a kind of fear that differed from the one before a battle, for the simple reason that in war you knew who you were facing, but in this case, he himself could feel the ancestral fear of all that is unknown and hides in the darkness that has haunted humanity since the dawn of time. He shivered. But he had come all the way from England for Merlin and if that was the only way to get to him he wouldn't have a moment's hesitation. He took his first step then disappeared into the darkness.

Jonathan Strange was hovering over his silver basin when he became aware of another presence in the room. He closed his eyes, inhaled, no it wasn't the fairy. Was Byron back so soon? He was under the impression that he had just left, although in this permanent midnight one could never know ... He looked up and saw that a man had lowered his head with his own, to take a better look at him perhaps, and that it was not Byron. Doctor Greysteel? No, much too young. The man did remind him of someone he once knew ... and also of smoke and gunfire, foreign earth and trees, loneliness and then comfort ... Could it be?

"Grant?" Strange asked after the longest imaginable time, or so it seemed to the major. "Merlin!"
He looked a mess. He looked like he hadn't washed or shaved in days, his eyes were red rimmed and watery.
Sure Grant has seen him in worse shape after particularly long battles but his current expression came to him as a terrible shock.
One moment he looked absent, a ghost of his past self, the next he was wild and dangerous like a feral animal caught in a trap. He would have surely been unrecognisable to any other of his former comrades.

“Merlin?” he repeated, softly this time. Seeing him so unresponsive made Grant want to slap some sense into the man, so he grabbed him by the arm and knocked over the silver basin, spilling water all over Jonathan's feet. This had a wakening effect on the magician, who at first looked quite confused and then subsequently enraged.
"Look at what you've made me do! Now I'll have to fetch some more from the canal and it is very hard to see out there and I don't have any spare candles to take with me and I can't send you out there because I'm just imagining you of course-which is a pity because now that they've taken my wife, and my brother-in-law won't answer my letters, you're the only other person I would rather like to see- "
Grant tightened his grasp on Merlin's arms, which he had yet to let go. "But I am real Merlin! I am right in front of you!" Jonathan fixed his now vacuous eyes on the major's face and repeated "Grant?" Suddenly his sallow face lit up and the shadow of a smile curled his lips for a moment "Grant it really is you!" Grant sighed with relief "Of course it's me, of course-" he was cut off by Merlin who flung his arms around him and was clinging to him as tightly as he could. Grant held him in his arms and felt his body against his, so different from how it had been during the war. He felt leaner and more fragile than ever. His eyes slowly filled with tears.

Meanwhile Jonathan started frantically telling him all about Arabella's current situation, but was doing so in such a wild and erratic manner that the major could hardly understand a thing he was saying.
Then he stopped.
He looked Grant straight in the eye and said "They took her from me! And I simply don't know how to bring her back!" then he finally burst into tears and collapsed on the major's chest like he had never allowed himself to do in the Peninsula. Back then he had had the thought of his wife safe at home, but now ...
"It's all my fault! It's all my fault." He was saying, over and over again.

Grant did not know in what condition he would find his friend, although he knew the people there claimed he was mad, he had only known he wanted to help.
The realisation that he could not, in fact, help Jonathan in any way was crushing. He had come all this way ... But what was he thinking, he couldn't possibly hope to help the greatest magician in England in matters of magic and fairies and dead wives that were no longer so, apparently! He felt useless.

But he was still holding a sobbing and shaking Jonathan, who looked like he could use some sleep. So he fought back his tears and picked him up -how light he had become! He probably wasn't eating either- and carried him to his bed. He lied down beside him, he was after all emotionally exhausted, and started absentmindedly running his fingers through the magician's dirty locks. This seemed to soothe them both a great deal. Grant continued until he felt Strange stiffen at his side and then abruptly sit up. He was now looking at him with the very same eyes Grant knew and recognised.
"Grant! You really are here!" He sounded greatly astonished " I can see you even now that the effect has worn off- but this means I must take it again-" he reached for a small brown bottle that lay on the table next to where the basin had been but Grant had guessed his intentions and was quicker than him.
"Be careful with that! I very desperately need it" Jonathan was pleading "Please"
"Is this what makes you so wild and so despondent?" Grant asked angrily "why should I let you take it again? You were barely recognisable! How could I let you do this to yourself Merlin? My Merlin-" at these words Jonathan fell silent. Then he joined Grant back on the bed, and leaned in closer to him, so that their foreheads touched. "Say it again" he whispered "I shall be content to hear it one last time" Grant swallowed, then obliged "My Merlin" he had almost stopped breathing. Jonathan let his lips hover over the major's for a moment than gave him the lightest of kisses. Grant couldn't resist any longer, he pulled him closer and deepened the kiss until they both needed air. Merlin looked at him, and smiled.

Then, instead of maybe kissing him again, like Grant half expected, he swiftly grabbed the bottle the major still held in his hand and gulped down the foul-smelling liquid directly from it.
"No!" Grant had taken the bottle away from him but it was too late; Jonathan was already starting to shake all over. "I am so very sorry, Grant, truly I am. But I couldn't let you keep me from getting my wife back- he made a painful sounding noise that startled Grant- no not even you. As much as I would have enjoyed sharing this darkness with you, that is not the reason God has made me a magician! I can't leave! And I can't let you stay... I must-" he was stopped by yet another painful spasm and collapsed on the floor.

Grant felt physically sick seeing the man that had once been his beloved Merlin thrash about the room in such a state. He really did look mad! His eyes were like burning coals and what he was saying sounded so foreign that not even a polyglot such as himself could attempt to make it out. The major felt once again utterly helpless.
Not only had he been totally unable to help, he now feared he had somehow contributed to make the matter worse. When he had arrived Strange had seemed fairly stable, now he had drunk nearly half the contents of the little brown bottle and appeared to take no notice of his friend grabbing him, holding him against the wall and begging him to stop.

The major walked back out into the city after what could have been hours or days in that everlasting night. He did not know and did not wish to know. He walked and talked like a man in dream. He left for England the very next day and couldn't for the life of him take his eyes off the Pillar of Darkness until it was nothing more than a black spot on the horizon.