A Toast to Marie

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

One evening, Frederick Ellis returns home to find two men who confess to the murderer of Ellis's lover. Ellis insists the only way they could truly show repentance is if they join him in a toast to Marie, a toast spiked with poison.

A man walked along the street, the high collar and low brimmed hat creating a dark, unfathomable cave, in which only the faintest, harden outlines of his face could be seen. He walked slowly, almost reluctantly, as if wanting with every atom of his body to turn and leave this place, but having no other option than to keep moving forward, to strain towards some personal hell. He kept his eyes fixed on the ground in front of him, doing anything in his power to keep from catching sight of the small shops and cafes, softened by the gentle shine of the setting sun, or the people who merrily passed between them and who moved by him so carelessly as if not taking any notice of his gaunt, strangled figure. Of course, every now and again, a person would catch sight of the man’s face in a rare and unwanted moment of illumination, and after glancing away, would quickly look back, his memory sparked somehow by the black and ruined visage which he had seen. He would stand in a moment of reflection, looking after the man, wondering where he had seen him before, and eventually grasping a name—Ellis, wasn’t it?—and with that the image of a young smiling man with the full force of life shining from every pore of his body, arm slung around the waist of a pretty girl a few years younger than himself (what had her name been…?), roving the streets with magnificent carelessness, talking loudly of life and love and music and fortunes yet to be gained and a world full of magnificent things, all at his and his young bride’s fingertips. What a funny little man he’d been! Frederick Ellis, that was his name, and Marie, the girl, that pretty little face as clear as day, fresh as anything, plucked right from the field of life, always at his side, the two of them, made for each other…

This image, in a moment, would flash through the mind of one who beheld the dark man’s face, and, just as quickly, be dismissed. Surely this man was not the bright youthful Frederick Ellis of just three years ago! Ellis had left with his bride to be married in some exotic place, crying as they left the town that they would be back in a few months if they hadn’t stumbled upon their fortunes while on their honeymoon. And they hadn’t come back; so the people eventually forgot them, believing that they really had made their way in the world. No, concluded the idle passer-by, that man was certainly not Frederick Ellis, and he would turn away and continue his evening enterprises.

And yet the dark man continued deeper into the village, making his way towards the home of Frederick Ellis, which slightly decayed now, though sometimes with a warm glow behind one of the dusty panes, for an old relative of Ellis sometimes came and stayed in the house. The man took his time on this long and evidently painful walk towards the Ellis house, as if still fighting the urge to turn and flee from this village, flee and never look back. But, with his eyes ever trained on the grimy road before him, he moved on. The sun had set by the time he reached his destination. He paused at the top of the street, and with difficulty, raised his eyes to look at the joined brick houses that enclosed the narrow street. Diagonal columns of light crisscrossed in the cool April night, originating out of the cheery windows of the other houses. In fact, almost every house on the street seemed to be full of light, and shed its radiance down upon the street, making the place seem bright and welcome. Every house was lit, that is, except one, and it just so happened that two men stood on the door-step of this house, apparently having just arrived, waiting for someone to open the door. The dark man’s eyes narrowed within the shady gloom of his hat. Even from this distance, he knew who those two men were, and he marveled at the coincidence that he and the two men should return to this place on the same night, at roughly the same time, after all these years.

Frederick Ellis stayed where he was for a moment, gazing at his two visitors. They both had the look of formerly prosperous men whose lives had recently taken a turn for the worse. One of the men, though wielding a well-fed belly, wore shabby clothes, and had a creased, unshaven face. The other had a similar appearance of decay, though a large, glittering watch chain still hung from a pocket, and his monocle didn’t look any less expensive. It was this second man—thin, long-limbed—who seemed uncomfortable to be one the doorstep of the Ellis home. He appeared to be tugging his companions arm, hissing something to him, jerking his head down the street. His meaning was unmistakable. Let’s get the hell out of here while we’ve got the chance. But the other man shook his head, hissing back curses. Ellis smiled at their distress, and after a moment more of watching them argue, he stepped into the street, making his way towards the door, still taking his time.

The monocle man noticed him first. He stopped in midsentence, and stared, apparently struck dumb by the sight of Ellis. The fat man, becoming aware that something was happening, glanced over his shoulder. He, too, was at a momentary loss for words. Ellis, however, continued up to the step, tilted back his hat to let the light hit it, and looked with a cold amusement at the two men before clapping his hands on their shoulders. “Well, well, well, my dear Mr. Cummings!” he said in voice which, though containing no hint of malice, seemed to snap on the two men’s ears like mousetraps. “And Mr. Roe, what an extraordinary surprise! Did you hear of my return? Surely you couldn’t have, I haven’t been in contact with anyone for months.” His tone, to the casual listener, might have been light. The two men, however, knew better.

Mr. Cummings, belly shaking with sorrow, hugged Ellis tightly, still, it seemed, unable to find proper words. Ellis could feel the other’s entire body quivering. After they broke apart, Mr. Roe nodded swiftly to Ellis.

 “How are you, Frederick?” he asked shortly. He, too, seemed to be suffering from some internal struggle with himself. His lips were pressed tightly together, hands clamped behind his back, his magnified eye surveying the appalling depths into which Ellis had sunk in the past three years. “I hope we haven’t come at an inconvenient time. We… we wanted to check up on you, to make sure you were well, you know.”

Frederick Ellis smiled. “How kind of you. Please, come in.” He took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. He moved into the gloom, leaving the Messrs. Cummings and Roe alone together on the door step for a moment. They shared a swift glance, one pair of red, distressed eyes, one set of cold, disturbed eyes, gazing from behind a monocle. Both men had to make a decision here. If they entered the house after Ellis, they would, perhaps, be sealing their fates. The alternative, however, was more of the pain. Though they both felt the pain with different levels of acuteness, it was still equally horrible for them both. Not a sharp pain, though very much like the stab of a knife. Not a dull pain, though very much like the force of a cannonball in the chest. The two men were split. Roe, it seemed, would have left, though what good would he do in leaving if Cummings was going to follow Ellis? He therefore stood, and looked at his companion, who gave a slow nod, and walked into the dim interior of the house. Roe could only follow, his icy face showing nothing of his true emotion.

They were in a very narrow hall, with a closed door on their right and a staircase ahead. Ellis’s footsteps could be heard ascending the stairs, and a light presently shown down from the upper level. The two men moved upstairs, both feeling somewhat claustrophobic—like caged animals—though perhaps not just because of the narrowness of the stairway.

They were in a kitchen. It was lit by a single lamp, its bulb giving off a muted glow through a thick layer of dust. Ellis was moving around, looking in cabinets, in the refrigerator, into the bedroom. Though everything was clearly dusty, it was surely not the accumulation of three years disuse. Ellis, coming back into the kitchen, explained by saying: “My uncle, I believe, must have stayed here recently. He is the only other person with a key, and I told him a while ago he could use this place whenever he liked. There’s some soup in the freezer. Why don’t you stay and have a bowl with me?”

“Yes, yes, that would be fine,” said Cummings distractedly. He and Roe were standing side by side, watching Ellis heat up the soup on the stove, no one saying a word.

“We’ll eat out there,” said Ellis after a while, nodding his head through a doorway to his right. “There are bowls already out there.” His two guests shuffled into the small dining room, taking three bowls from a cupboard. Ellis came out from the kitchen, carrying the soup, which he placed in the middle of the table. They sat, both Cummings and Roe surreptitiously sliding their chairs away from Ellis. No one had taken off his coat. The scene had an unreal quality about it. Three haggard men, all feeling that their lives were drawing to a close, though not one of them was over forty. They all ladled the red liquid into their bowls, and set about slurping it down, thus making the only noise in those cramped quarters.

Ellis finished first. He pushed back his bowl, leaned back in his chair, and said: “Perhaps you two are unaware of where I have been these past three years since we last met.”

They looked at him, one of them murmuring “where?”, though it was impossible to tell which one in the gloom.

Ellis’s lips moved into a sneer as he said “I left the day after.” He spoke as though starting in the middle of a story, knowing that his listeners were familiar with the first half. “I didn’t have a clear idea where I was going, but I left, and left everything. I took nothing, except some money, to assist me in my as yet unformed plans. So, with just the clothes on my back and some cash in my pocket and a restless energy in my heart, I set about going anywhere. Not back here, of course, I thought perhaps you two would have known that, but it seems not. I got on a train first, managing to do so without buying a ticket, thus conserving my budget. It took me far across Europe, and I eventually got off in Turkey. I had an idea in my head that I wanted to go east, far east, perhaps China. I am familiar with a great many dialects, and I even have a friend who lived in Turkey, and who let me stay the night before I set off the very next morning. That, in my mind, is where my journey really began. I was alone. The only desire I felt was to keep moving, to travel as far as possible into the unknown, and to lose myself in some exotic place. I must say, one tenth of my adventures in those years that followed would have filled a thick novel. Those adventures were just what I needed and desired. In my encounters with pirates and shamans and journeyers like myself, I regained some of my feeling of self which I had lost, and rekindled the flame of life within me, though it was quite a bit weaker than before. I have traveled far, and come back a wiser yet sadder man. There are few places on this globe where I have not been, few cultures I have not been immersed in, few people on the entire planet who have not seen me passing through their neighborhood. That is where I have been since we last met.” He looked across at the two men with a glimmer of humor in his eyes. Whether his story was to be taken seriously, neither Cummings nor Roe had the faintest idea.

“And why,” said Roe, “have you come back here? What are your plans?”

Ellis gave a faint nod of the head, as if acknowledging that Roe had asked a good question. “I had not intended to return to this place ever—I swore, even, that I would not. In fact, many times I was about to throw the key down the drain, or bury it somewhere. But, as you know, I never did. I’m not entirely sure why I kept it with me all this time; I certainly had no affection for it. Once or twice I hurled it out a window or into some tall grass, only to scamper after it and search for it for hours. I suppose it was a link, the final tie to the past which, try as I might, I could not bring myself to cut.”

These words affected their listeners much more than their speaker. Cummings gave another quake, and Roe grew paler, his lips pressed so tightly together that he appeared not to have a mouth at all. Ellis, if he noticed, said nothing.

“I returned here because I couldn’t stay away. In some ways I didn’t want to return. I cringed as approached this place, yet I knew I had to come. There is something here that I want, yet I don’t know what. I feel this place in my chest. It slowly closes its hand around my heart. I feel it right now, as I speak, yet I want to stay, I cannot leave.” He spoke quietly, ruthlessly, passionately. The other men knew of this pain, knew it well. They were still, their hearts cold. Their ears soon became numb to Ellis’s speech. Though he continued on with his story for several long minutes—maybe even longer—the two men seemed frozen in one removed, miserable moment in time. They looked at the speaking man, as he told them of his pains, and could only wait in horrible silence as the time drew nearer when they would have to speak.
At last Ellis stopped speaking. The sun had long since dipped below the horizon. Though the stars were out, there was no moon that night. The windows of the other houses were all dark. The whole town had eased into slumber while the three men sat in that small dining room, each in his own agony.

Ellis stood. “Why don’t we have a drink? My uncle seems to have left a bottle of wine behind, and I don’t think he would mind if we helped ourselves.” He moved into the kitchen and returned with the bottle and three glasses. He placed them on the table and, turning back to get the bottle-opener, did a double take at Cummings face. “Why, my dear Mr. Cummings,” he said. Could that be malice in his voice? “You look terribly pale. Are you ill?”

Under the table, Cummings felt the boot of Mr. Roe press down on his own foot, but, after three years, the time had come to speak. He didn’t care what Roe said. He opened his mouth, and but his voice caught in his throat. He suddenly became aware of his hands gripping the table, white as a sheet, and of the sweat dripping down his forehead, icy cold, making him shiver.

“W-we came to talk to you about something, Frederick,” he said. “Sit down. We have something we want to talk to you about. You might want to pour out some of that wine; this m-might be a bit of a shock.”

Frederick Ellis was standing, with a glimmer in his eyes. He slowly sat down in his chair, never taking his eyes from Cummings, and said “Yes?”

“It’s hard… I don’t know how to say it,” Cummings mumbled, as if he had a head cold. “It’s damned hard to say, Frederick… Jesus…” he was kneading his forehead now. “It happened so… I don’t really know what happened. We were drunk that night, me and Roe. And… god, you’ll never understand what made us do it. I don’t even know what made us do it.”

Roe was looking at the speaking man, so he missed the small flicker at the corner of Ellis’s mouth.

“We were drunk,” he said again. “You had gone out on that fellow Barry’s boat to go fishing, you remember? You called me, and I said I didn’t want to go. I was already drunk. Roe was over, and we were playing cards. I mentioned you going out on the boat. He asked about her, and I said that she had stayed at home. We both knew our feelings about her.” He stopped, and shook his head.

“What feelings?” This was no more than a hiss from the shady gloom of Ellis’s face, for he had pulled his hat low over his brow again. He had slowly been shrinking in his chair, hiding his face in shadow, listening with almost painful intensity.

Roe leaned forward, his whole body rigid. “If there was anything else like her on the planet, I’d never heard of it. She was a goddamn angel. She was beauty, perfection—an angel. I’d watched her all those years. I knew every detail of her face, her every expression, her every movement. She was an angel, and… and…” he turned his face bitterly towards the window. “Angel’s have no right living among a world of mortals. She had no right to run off with you. She couldn’t belong to one man. She was… beyond anything I’d ever known.”

There was a silence, before Cummings said “We went up to the house that night, in the rain, barely able to walk in a straight line. We don’t know what our intentions were, other than to see and to speak with Marie, and maybe even to persuade her to leave you. She was like a beautiful animal kept locked away in a cage, we thought. We wanted to set her… it’s horrible… it’s disgusting.” He truly looked as though he were about to be sick on the table. He couldn’t continue.

The dark outline that was Ellis didn’t move, but his voice drawled out, low. “You met her at the top of the stairs. She saw you were drunk, and maybe even dangerous, and she tried to run, but both of you grabbed her, and as she tried to twist free, she fell down the stairs, and broke her neck on the way down. That’s right, isn’t it?” There came an appalled silence, before Ellis said: “You forget that it was raining that night. I made my plans to go out with Barry before the downpour. I out in back when you two came into the house, and later, when I went in and found her body; I could see two figures out the window, moving away. I recognized them to be you two, and, at the time, not in my right mind, I dismissed the idea that you had anything to do with it. But later the idea settled, and before long I knew that you were guilty. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew, though I never acted upon it. I chose to run away from my life, instead. I chose to forget. I know now how foolish I was to have done that. Forgetting was—is—impossible.” His voice never shook, though ripples of emotion could be detected in his voice. “I agree with you, Mr. Roe. She was an angel, beyond anything else on this Earth. Perhaps, you’re right, and she did not belong here. Perhaps it was for the better that she is now dead.” He laughed.

Rising, he moved into the kitchen, returning with a corkscrew, and opened the bottle. He began pouring the red liquid out into the three glasses. “You two have returned tonight to seek my forgiveness.”

“Certainly we haven’t,” rasped Roe. “We can never be forgiven. We will never be forgiven. We only wanted to tell the truth.”

Once again, Ellis laughed, and it was an unfriendly sound. He had taken a small corked vile from the inner pocket of his coat, containing some glistening liquid. Pulling out the cork, he emptied its contents evenly between the three goblets of wine. He carefully took each goblet in hand, and swirled the wine around. He did this slowly, purposefully. When he was done, he placed two of them before the two men, and sat himself down with the third. Ellis said, “I purpose a toast to Marie, who was so perfect, that she could not belong to one man.” He laughed for a third time.

Cummings was gasping for breath. “You put something in the wine,” he whispered, shrinking away from his goblet as though it were a viper. “What was in that vile?”

“My friends,” said Ellis. “Marie is dead, and she will never return to this Earth, not in a million years. You two are the ones who killed her, who ripped her from me days before our wedding. You wish to express remorse, but your words mean nothing. Your only intention is to free yourselves of the feeling of guilt, nothing more. You merely wish to rid yourself of the pain and memory of it, and you think that by coming to me and confessing that you can wash yourself of her death forever. You came in selfishness, to help yourself, not because you loved her or truly regret what you have done. In coming to me tonight, you have only made me disgust you more than I already do.”

“It’s not true!” shrieked Cummings. “Stop saying it! We loved her! We loved her more than life itself!”

“If you loved her,” said Ellis. “If you truly want to show me your repentance, then join me in my toast. Drink to Marie, my fellows, and be forever free of her memory!”

“What is in the wine, Frederick?” asked Roe harshly.

“A little potion of mine; it is a slow-acting poison which I discovered while in Indonesia. A single drop will seal a man’s fate, and leave him with ten minutes or so to contemplate his approaching demise. You needn’t worry—it is quite painless.”

There was a silence in the room, before Roe leapt to his feat, his chair skittering into the wall, and this time it was he who gave a cold bark of laughter. “You think we’re going to drink poison? You think that we’re going to kill ourselves for what we’ve done? Don’t be crazy. I don’t have to kill myself to show my remorse. I know what I did was wrong, I’ve confessed it. I’m not going to—”

“If you truly regret it,” cut in Ellis coldly, “you will drink to her.”

“But it’s absurd!” Again, a cold laugh.

Cummings wasn’t moving—even his trembling had stopped. He was gazing in pleading sadness at Ellis. Roe said: “Come on, Cummings, let’s go.” But Cummings didn’t move.

“Sit down, Roe,” said Ellis. “I will not make you drink, but sit down. Grace us with your presence for just a little longer, that is all I ask.”

Roe hesitated. He wanted to leave, but something was holding him back. He was unnerved by the look on Cummings’s face; it seemed as though he were completely under Ellis’s spell. He might even drink the wine! Roe could see no danger in staying, and if these two men were going to be found dead, and if he was seen entering and leaving this place by anyone, people might think that he had killed them, and try to track him down. So he slowly drew up his chair, and sat, and watched Ellis with some of the same attentiveness as the fat, entranced figure beside him.

A clock tower struck ten o’clock somewhere in the small town, and a small frown creased Ellis’s brow. Somehow, he seemed to be worried by that chime. He leaned forward across the table, his voice harsh and quick. “I have said all I want to say, and I will say it again. You are not here tonight because you loved Marie as I did, but because you hate and despise the pain it causes you to think that you killed her. There is a difference between the two, and it is the difference which separates good men from the selfish, disgusting cowards like yourselves. You wish to erase the crime and shame of what you’ve done, but not bring back Marie, or else you may very well have been driven to do what you did again!”

“We wouldn’t,” chocked Cummings, and Roe, his face pearly white, his hands clamped in fists, could convey his agreement with Cummings through an icy stare.

“Then prove it!” cried Ellis, seizing his one wine glass. “Drink with me! Let us toast the long life and happiness of Marie, right now, here, while we huddle in shade and gloom and dream of the past. Let us drink.” He raised his glass towards the other two.

Cummings lurched forward, lifting his own glass and chinking it against Ellis’s, whimpering softly. They remained in that position, their glasses raised, looking at Roe. He looked back at them, and all of his scorn and malicious anger of but a moment before seemed to have left him. He now seemed to be thinking, tapping his finger on the edge of the table, shaking his head very slightly. Somehow, the image of the two raised wine glasses was affecting him. He never took his eyes off them, as he reached forward and lifted his own glass, and raised it. A soft ring sounded in the small room as the lips of glass touched. They all three then put back their heads, with their wine glasses at their lips. While Ellis and Cummings kept their eyes on the dark ceiling above, Roe watched the other two out of the corner of his eye. They all put down their glasses at the same time.

Ellis rose, and took the three empty glasses into the kitchen. He returned a moment later, holding a small deck of cards. “Thank you, my friends,” he said softly, as he sat, and began shuffling the cards. He didn’t speak anything more. Roe was now the one shaking, as he received his cards with unsteady fingers. Cummings’s face looked lost and hopeless. They played cards then, in silence, as time moved on, and they awaited their deaths.

After fifteen minutes, Cummings threw down his cards, and covered his face with his hands, shaking. Roe did and said nothing, but merely sat there looking ill. Ellis waited, as the minutes went by.

And then, at last, the poison took effect, and, with arrow-like swiftness, dealt its fatal blow. Roe gave a small, choking dry, clutching his stomach, and toppled off his chair. He was dead before he knew what had happened.

Cummings heard the noise, and gave a sob of terror, knowing that his own demise was only seconds away. He still had his head in his hands. He didn’t see Ellis smiling sadly at him.

After a full minute of horrified waiting, Cummings felt Ellis’s hand on his shoulder. “You’re all right, my friend,” said Ellis. Cummings raised his massive head. He glanced down at Roe’s dead form lying in the shadows under the table, and groaned softly. “You’re all right,” repeated Ellis.

Cummings was breathing deeply. After a moment, he said “You… you only poisoned Roe’s glass? But why?”

Ellis moved around the table, leaning his forehead against the cool glass of the windowpane. “No,” he said. “No. It was a cruel little trick of mine. In fact, if you examine Mr. Roe more closely, I think you will discover that he let all of his wine dribble down his cheek. The truth is this: all three of us were poisoned. I intended to kill us all, you see, a put the slow-acting poison I mention into the soup we ate earlier. I then realized that you two had come to confess to the murder which I knew you had committed. I doubted myself then. Were you two truly remorseful for what you had done? If so, was my killing you justified? I felt that I must find out. I had with me a rather miraculous potion which I obtained on my travels, said to be able to counteract most deadly poisons, and it was this, you see, which I put in the wine. If you drank the wine—if your own remorse drove you to try and take your own life—you would live. Roe didn’t feel his guilt acutely enough to drive him to drink his wine. He deserved to die.”

There was a long silence, in which Cummings sat, and shook with silent sobs. After a moment, he rose, and moved over to Ellis and placed his arm on his shoulder. “Thank you, my friend,” he said. He could not mention Marie at the moment; his voice was shaking too much.

Ellis nodded. “Will you be all right?”

“Yes, I’ll be all right. What about you?”

Ellis shrugged. “I feel a bit tired, but I always feel tired. There’s a weight on my chest which I doubt will ever be lifted. For the moment, I think I’ll rest here. I am a bit hungry. There is a little soup left. I believe I shall have another bowl.”

Submitted: August 19, 2013

© Copyright 2020 ChristianMorrow. All rights reserved.

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