The two officers led the pair of British visitors along Table Rock, the precarious outcrop which touched the corona of Niagara Falls, carefully traversing the ice and sludge that served as their path. The roar of the falls was deafening – in fact it’s deep, penetrating bass could be heard and felt from the tourists’ hotel. In moments the frigid cloud of spray they entered saturated their clothing.
Charles Dickens turned to his travelling secretary, brushing long wet locks from his handsome, boyish face. “George, isn’t this marvellous! Great God! How can any man be disappointed at this!”
George Putnam adjusted his overcoat, shivering from the cold. He moved closer to his friend and patron, so that he could be heard over the noise. “None can, Charles. However, if we stay out here for more than a few more minutes, I suspect we will succumb to the cold.” He flapped his arms, trying to warm them. “I fear that we may even end up frozen, and become additions to the scenery.”
Dickens was about to respond with a witty remark, when his eyes adjusted to the concentrated cold and moisture in the air and he saw, with absolute clarity, the intense green colour of the water falling to the frothy, jagged base below. The playwright and novelist was now at a loss for words. He was astonished by the vastness of the scene before him, more so than what he had seen when he and his small entourage had arrived at their hotel that morning.
He focused for a moment on the two dapper officers, who had earlier kindly offered to escort the visitors, and he observed that they too were struggling with the frigid conditions. He glanced behind and saw Kate and Anne – his wife and her serving maid – rugged up and under shelter, eagerly waiting for their return. Dickens realised that it was time to head back, and mentally noted that he wanted this short excursion to occur again before he left for Montreal. He stole one last glance at the green wall of water with its billowing, frosty white exhalation. His own breath was suddenly taken away; he was stunned by a vision that nearly pummelled him to his knees. Time seemed to slow to almost a standstill.
Despite the biting, scratching water vapour flailing his eyes, he saw a face forming within the churning whiteness and verdigris of the falls. It started out as a pale visage of a young and innocent female beauty, becoming, as the fractions of a second slowly passed by, more clear and attractive. Dickens’ eyes widened as he saw dark, curling hair form around this feminine form and then rose-red lips and large, bright blue eyes. Mary! Oh my Lord, it is Mary! It was the face of Mary, sister of his wife, Kate, who had died three years earlier at the tender age of seventeen. It had torn his and Kate’s souls apart. The thought of her still ached like a steel rod that pierced his heart and lungs, and which could never be removed.
Perhaps a half a second had gone by. Mary’s face started to come to life and her eyes turned to him and she smiled… a deep and penetrating smile, with a look of understanding. She acknowledges me! Then a cloud of spray engulfed the party and Mary disappeared. He thought he heard a fading sigh, amidst the cacophony of the falls.
One of the soldiers approached him. “Sir, it is too cold for a soul to survive here for long! I sincerely recommend our return to your hotel!”
Dickens nodded, but only a small portion of his mind was on what the man had said. He was still shaken to the core by his vision.
George grabbed his shoulder and turned him around, shouting. “Charles! He is right!”
This time he understood. He could feel the cold and the wet seeping into his insides. “Yes, my friends. We must return.” They all carefully made their way back to the hotel.
On their return Kate saw Dickens’ face, and knowing her husband well, could see that his paleness and the unusual look in his eyes, was more than just the extremity of the weather. It was also more than just the majestic spectacle that he had just witnessed. She joined the group and locked her arm affectionately around his. The group walked briskly back to the hotel, and Kate nonchalantly whispered in his ear. “Charles, is there something troubling you? Do you want to talk with me in our room?”
Dickens smiled. “Dearest, nothing escapes your discerning eyes, does it?” He paused for a moment. “I do need to go to our room, but… do you mind if I go there alone?”
Kate could barely disguise a frown. “I have seen that look in your eyes before, Charles. She has been gone a long time now. I do not want to see you enter that dark place again…”
He stopped walking and held her close, both hands tenderly grasping her waist. “Darling. I need to collect my thoughts. I would be lying if Mary is not on my mind at this moment.” Kate was about to speak again but he squeezed her slightly tighter, conveying the importance of his point. “I swear that I am fine. There is something I need to reason out, to reconcile.”
She sighed and nodded. “Go then, but remember that we shared our darkest days together, and benefited from it. I could not have survived without your companionship.”
He placed a lingering kiss on her forehead, released his embrace, and left the group.
He climbed the stairs to his room feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt, but he couldn’t explain to Kate what he saw from Table Rock, until he could understand it better himself. He swore to himself he would tell her everything.
On closing his door, and subconsciously locking it, he quickly changed into dry clothes and sat at the breakfast table near the French windows that provided a magnificent view of the falls. He poured himself a sherry and, again without thinking, prepared his note paper and ink well and quill.
He was halfway through his second glass of sherry before he was able to think at all.
Mary Hogarth. When Kate married him Mary was inseparable from her older sister and moved in with the young couple. The teenage girl was full of life – spirit – and for Dickens she was an absolute delight to have in his home. She was bubbly, excitable, and for her age, highly intelligent. She inspired him in his writing and unabashedly critiqued his works – if warranted, it was gratefully accepted, and if not, it allowed him to refine his work.
He topped up his glass. This was where there was some long-standing guilt, but of a form that was highly complex. While Mary was alive he never thought deeply about his feelings for her. There were times when he felt that she was an important part of his relationship with Kate – it was impossible to conceive of Kate without Mary, and his feelings, his (dare he say it?) desires, could not separate the two. After she died – that awful year when it was clear her heart was weak and she slowly weakened and then passed quietly – Dickens fell into a profound depressed state. The Pickwick Papers was left half written for over a year, and all he could do was exist at the most basic of levels. Many people thought he was finished. What they did not know, nor Kate, was that he was also struggling with his feelings for the dead girl. It was shame. He could not – even now – disentangle all the wonderful and pleasurable feelings he had of Mary and find whether one or two of these threads were unwholesome, unnatural, sinful. It ate at his soul like cancer for those three years, and remnants of the disease still existed. But this did not mean he had no love for Kate – far from it – it was profound and universal. Ironically, this added to his guilt. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why he had to be in his room alone.
Then his thoughts turned to the apparition.
He was on his fourth sherry.
He tried to recall what the Falls had actually stirred in him prior to his vision of Mary, using his keen writer’s insight. The immensity of the Falls was there to behold and could not be ignored. It made him feel small and insignificant in this world, where, if he threw himself into the churning ice, water and rock he could imagine himself being distended, spread out into the universe – no pain, agony and terror – just emersion into oblivion. He laughed. As insignificant as man was in the presence of Niagara Falls, the thoughts it produced were profound and cosmic. Instead of making man trivial it made him master.
His line of thinking arrived at a deeper conclusion as to what caused him to be so moved by the Falls. He was not awed or terrified by Niagara – he was actually lulled into a sense of contentment. Peace of mind; tranquillity. He was near his Creator. Dickens articulated his thoughts by toasting the Falls and God at the same time, raising his glass. “You have instilled comfort in eternal rest.”
“I am glad,” came a young and familiar voice from behind him.
Dickens turned rapidly, spilling some of his sherry over his notepaper. Before him was Mary, at the tender age of when she died. Instead of dark recesses for eyes and a year’s worth of pain and suffering etched into a sallow face, she was vibrant again; colour in her clear and smooth skin; life in her eyes. He fell to the floor on his knees. “Is it really you?”
She wore a white dress that was one of his favourites, and she had no jewellery on her except for a simple silver chain around her neck and caressing her small, milk-white breasts. She smiled and stepped toward the incredulous writer, stopping about three feet from him.
He rose to his feet and found it difficult to believe how real she looked. There was no wispy apparition before him; he could actually smell her so wonderfully familiar lavender scent. “Why, why are you here?”
“I want you to be happy. I want to ease your suffering.” She was still smiling, but the look in her eyes had a depth to them that revealed some solemn purpose.
“I am a writer. We always suffer.” Dickens felt like an idiot the moment he uttered his words.
Mary’s eyelashes fluttered. “You have a choice on that matter. Perhaps I can help.” She moved closer to him and, to Dickens’ complete surprise, she placed her lips on his and kissed him long and passionately.
Her hands drew him closer to her, and he also tightly held her warm, soft body. Then he realised something was wrong. It was not the fact that Mary was so agonisingly substantial, and tasted and smelled so real, but that his passion was not there, or at least did not match hers.
He gently pushed her back and she continued to smile, with a virginal innocence that contrasted with the full blooded passion she had exhibited only moments before.
“What is wrong, Charles?”
“I, I cannot do this.”
“Why?” she asked.
“It is not right. I am married and you are my sister-in-law.”
Her smile disappeared. “You are correct, Charles, but there is more that has come out of this test. What did you feel?”
He thought quickly and delved into his own soul. “When I… kissed you, held you, it did not seem right. There was no love, not the way I make love with Kate.”
The smile returned to Mary’s face. “There. You have it. Your love for me when I was alive was not for a man for a woman, it was for our profound friendship… the three of us together. It is that simple. After I died you were grieved and it grew into something larger, more complicated. Distorted. You caused yourself to believe that your feelings were more than what they were.” She stepped back a few feet. “You need to understand that you need not suffer now. You should cherish the memories of our time together. I am at peace – I am resting in eternity. I am happy.”
Tears started to run down Dickens’ cheeks. “I am so glad you are happy. But the injustice, the loss…”
Mary placed her right index finger to her lips. “I am happy…” And then she faded away.
Charles Dickens, a few weeks after his thirtieth birthday, turned again to the view of the Falls. He looked to the remnants of sherry in his cut crystal glass and wondered if he had imagined it all, if the alcohol had addled his brain. He didn’t care. The short visit to Table Rock had allowed him to rediscover peace and contentment.
He got to his feet and slipped on his winter coat. I cannot wait to tell Kate that she has been here.
This is set in a scene that is factual, and several phrases are taken from Dickens’ published letters. The only liberty I took, apart from the psychological (and parapsychological) assumptions, is that Dickens did not visit Table Rock in winter.