John Arnold settled himself in his wingback chair, located just in front of the furthermost wall of his library. “An antique resting upon an antique,” he thought to himself. On the table next to him was a cup of fresh coffee and the morning newspaper left moments ago by his butler in a morning ritual that had been going on so long that its timing was more precise than the levée of King Louis XIV.
Sipping the coffee, Arnold turned his attention to the morning’s news: violence, unrest, chaos. It was the same thing every morning. The old man shook his head, both at the news and as a means of taking his mind off to it. Then, he opened the drawer in the small table next to his chair. From within the table, he pulled a small envelope, yellowed with age, like much of everything in the library, including the man himself. Unfolding the letter, Arnold began to read, though at this point, he could have recited it from memory if he had tried.
“John, my oldest friend,
“I wondered if you had heard about my recent turn of bad luck, but I suspect it will be kept as quiet as possible. More out of respect to the memory of my father than out of any concern for my own standing, yet quiet all the same. Assuming that I have vanished in a cloud of mystery, I will relay the facts swiftly, abandoning my usual literary gilding.
“Last we spoke, I had left the family home–and their good graces–to devote myself full-time to writing. Early on, I struggled to find my voice, to find the words with which I could open the minds of our countrymen and guide them into a new world. I searched for the best words until, finally, I found them. Sadly, it is only now that I can look back and see how this search is what brought this misfortune upon me.
“After finding my voice, it was as if I had already written countless books within my own mind and needed only to transcribe them. I worked with a feverish pace and published numerous articles and volumes of wild and weighty words. And yet, my words remained my own for no one thought them worth publishing.
“Tome after tome, I produced a voluminous amount of work. I would no sooner finish one endeavor when a new idea would enter my mind, begging to placed upon the page. I lost all sense of day or night, working for hours straight before hunger or exhaustion would finally break through the fog of inspiration. Of course, this took a toll on my body, which I did my best to ignore.
“However, the toll on my mind was something those closest to me could not ignore. Despite my meager income derived from popular journalism, I had garnered enough financial stature as to take on a few servants, all of whom became increasingly worried about my…descent after having found my voice.
“It was, however, at that time, that a few individuals, admirers of my popular writing, had begun to call upon me, to discuss the vague notions of my more esoteric ideas that I had hinted at–subconsciously, perhaps?–in my paid writings. They entreated me to read to them from these secret tomes, and I obliged. I was overcome with the fanciful idea that I was finally being appreciated for my writing, my voice.
“I read. And read. Until I could have cursed myself for my own verbosity, but my new devotees pleaded with me for me, begging with the ferocity of men clamoring for air. I became drunk on their praise, and, so that I might continue to receive a steady stream of their adulation, I subjected myself to even more intense sessions of writing, pouring out my life as a libation before the altar of the voice.
“I soon found myself abandoning whole parts of my house and the pieces of my life they represented, preferring to live out of my study, at my desk, finding solace only in breathing and writing. I was now a slave to my voice, and I could do nothing but take its dictation at all hours of the day and night. Many a morning was a I found asleep at my station, my face smeared with ink.
“My servants were long-suffering, but when I can began to speak to the voice, to argue with it, they had reached their limits, and neither the threat of being labeled “servants of the madman” nor the fear of losses wages could hold back their conscience. They contacted my family, who, with the grand discretion of the king himself, sought out a doctor who could help to restore my mind.
“The doctor quickly determined that my whits had left me, and that the best course of action was to get me away from my house, my adoring cloister of hangers-on, and my writing. Once my freedom to write was removed, the compulsion would be removed.
“And so, here I sit, institutionalized, prevented from carrying on with my writings, and for this punishment, I thank God, or I would, should I have been found to possess even a minute portion of faith. You see, my friend, I have now come to realize that this voice I found was my own madness or something far darker and less defined. My writings were riddled with ‘new ideas’ and ‘untested theorems’ that I now see for the madness and folly that they are.
“My friend, you must burn them all. Burn all of my writings. Every bit of esoteric fancy and foolhardy prose. For I have argued for insanity, against all reason, against nature itself. Should my devotees, those blind followers with their prattling praise, desire, they could, at this present moment, abscond with the whole lot of my literary career and then publish it, in memoriam most likely, and then all would be lost. For if these words, the product my voice, my madness, should ever gain a wide readership–or worse, a wide acceptance–society would begin to crumble. A worldwide madness would break out, and reason itself would be forced to flee.
“John, you must hurry to my house. Tell my servants that you have come to exorcise the evil that has haunted me, and they will stand aside. (They might, perchance, even assist you!) Do no delay! I am stalked nightly by feverish dreams of a horrifying nature. They are dreams of the future, a future built upon my madness, the madness of my damnable voice. Please, ensure that these remain the dreams of a broken man and not visions of a broken future. Set every work alight. You must not delay!
“I must end this now, for I am not allowed to write in here. I have successfully bribed an orderly for a single sheet of paper and a bit of pencil. For the price I paid, he has also agreed to post this letter to you.
“And so, I will stop here and forgo the usual lengthy closings of my letters for, even now, I can begin to hear the faint whisperings of my voice, and I cannot beat to awaken this demon once more. Farewell, my friend, I hope to meet you on the celestial shores, if they remain, after my literary attempts to erode them.
“Burn them all. Today.
The letter ended with that terse, hastily scribbled line. The handwriting throughout much of the letter was even and fluid, but as it grew longer, the author clearly began to lose his nerve and began write with a greater intensity and less concern for penmanship.
John Arnold settled back in his chair. Without the faintest realization, he had been moving further and further to the worn edge of his chair. The letter fell from his hands, as its aged read began to drift away into restless sleep.
“I’m sorry, my friend, I did not take your letter seriously. I thought it was further evidence of your madness, never thinking it was the last will and testament of your reason.”
The old man spoke to the air, the letter, the ether. No one was listening, for no one listened to reasonable men anymore. The madness of the author had escaped the madhouse, had entered into the world, and now held dominion over the thoughts of men.
[Photo credits: John-Mark Kuznietsov & Florian Klauer / Unsplash]