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My Salieri Complex

by Marina J. Neary


In the morning, when I stopped by our flat to change my shirt and fetch my textbooks, I found Jonathan’s room empty. I assumed I would meet him in the lecture hall. I could not help wondering how we would behave in front of our fellow students. Would we publicise our newly formed friendship? Perhaps he would prefer to keep it a secret and then astound the entire department at the end of the semester.

I have witnessed, on more than one occasion, scenes of jubilation when study partners, after receiving an award for a successful demonstration, would hang on each other’s necks, skip, squeal like pups and kiss each other “on the brain” as they called it. Then they would rip off their ties and give each other back rides up and down the hall, to the applause of their mates. It was a chance for these future high priests of science to temporarily turn into savages.

Thankfully, they did not practice such boorish antics with me, knowing my distaste for them. Undoubtedly, even the most civilized men need a release, especially if it is well-earned. Still, I could not fathom embracing Jonathan by the shoulders in public, no matter how much I yearned to.

When I entered the lecture hall, I saw Handley’s assistant. The professor himself was absent. So was Griffin.

When the assistant saw me, he pulled me aside.

“Mr. Kemp, Professor Handley wishes to see you in his office.”

The request to see the professor in private did not disturb me. I could not recall doing anything that would lead to repercussions. I assumed that the nature of the conversation would be purely academic. Perhaps, Griffin had informed Handley about our decision to collaborate and requested some funds from the department.

With a fairly light heart, I came into Handley’s office. He was there in the company of another professor by the name of Ellsworth. Both men were wearing ridiculously outdated silk ties that made their bloated faces look even more unsightly.

“Please, sit down,” Handley commanded, pointing at a vacant armchair. “I am afraid I have some disturbing news. Jonathan Griffin was taken to the infirmary earlier this morning, in a very grave condition.”

“God help him,” I mumbled, sitting down on the edge of the chair. “What happened?”

“Nobody knows for certain. He won’t talk to the doctor. He exhibits every symptom of severe poisoning: vomiting, pallor, listlessness, reduced circulation in the limbs.”

“Well, can I see him?”

“Not yet. The doctors insist on keeping him secluded.”

“Why on earth?”

Here Ellsworth intruded. “Samuel, do you know why we called you here?”

“Because I am Jonathan’s friend, naturally.”

“How odd,” Ellsworth commented, rubbing his chin. “I did not think that Jonathan had any friends. But he certainly had his share of enviers. The doctors have reasons to believe that he is suffering from no ordinary infection. There is evidence of a highly toxic substance in his bloodstream. The director is contemplating bringing in the constable, who may wish to question those with whom Griffin has had contact. We wanted to prepare you for this possibility. You may be among the first ones to be interrogated.”

Had I had any strength left in my legs, I would have leaped up from the chair. All I could do was press my fingers into the wooden arms.

“Don’t fear, Samuel, we aren’t trying to incriminate you,” Hayward chimed in hastily. “On the contrary, we are trying to protect you.”

“I know what made Griffin ill,” I blurted out, staring into the floor. “He drank one of his concoctions.”

The professors shook their heads in tandem.

“You aren’t implying that it was a suicide attempt, are you?” asked Ellsworth.

“Nothing of the sort! It was an experiment.”

“An experiment?”

“Yes! The substance he took was supposed to destroy the pigment in his blood without altering its properties. I’ve heard him mumble formulas in his sleep. Pigments, optical density, refraction index, transparency of living tissues, radiation machine... His obsessive love affair with light may have reached its pinnacle.”

The professors assumed the same pose: arms crossed, heads tilted. As I continued, Handley’s eyebrow kept arching steeper and steeper.

“So, what was the objective of his experiments?” he inquired. “In your opinion, what was Griffin trying to accomplish?”

Handley’s dimwittedness was truly infuriating. How long would it take him to assemble the pieces of the puzzle?

“Gentlemen,” I said, struggling to keep my voice steady, “is it not obvious that Griffin’s goal was invisibility?”

Both professors burst out laughing. The predicament had suddenly taken a farcical turn. Handley was so amused that he needed to pour himself a glass of sherry from the carafe on his desk.

“Scientific impossibility aside,” he resumed after the first sip, “why would a young man endowed with Griffin’s appearance wish to make himself invisible? I couldn’t help noticing the effect he has on the fair sex.”

“Griffin doesn’t care about women!” I exclaimed. “You don’t understand. He doesn’t care about anyone, least of all himself. He will risk his life for his work. I’ve grown to know Griffin like no other. Ridicule me to your hearts’ content. You did not stand behind the closed door of his bedroom for hours, listening to him rant in his sleep. Please, let me see him. I can persuade him to let the doctors treat him. He’ll listen to me. We can still save him.”

My eyes must have been tearing, because Handley offered me his handkerchief.

Ellsworth leaned over to his colleague and mumbled loudly enough for me to hear. “Something tells me that this is no longer a story of Mozart and Salieri. Rather, it is a story of Byron and Shelley.”

Handley, who was not very versed in Romantic literature, did not understand the allusion at once. He began chewing on his lower lip as he usually did to mask his ignorance.

“This would be far worse for the school’s reputation,” Ellsworth continued hissing in his ear. “Sensitive young men, when deprived of female companionship for prolonged stretches of time, can fall into all sorts of unwholesome, unnatural affections towards each other. Don’t you know? In ancient Sparta...”

The more Ellsworth spoke, the more perplexed Handley grew. History was another subject outside his expertise. Both carried on as if I were not present.

“Of what crime exactly am I being accused?” I asked at last, glancing up. “Let us be clear. Is it attempted murder or aberrant carnal tendencies?”

At last, Handley began to understand what was being alluded to. His jaw dropped, and his hand grasped his tie as if it were choking him.

“Young man! Have you no shame?”

“Shame? Shouldn’t you be posing this question to your colleague? A student is dying, and Professor Ellsworth is talking about ancient Sparta. Apparently, that is where his own mind dwells. Those night walks that he took down Gower Street with a handsome telegraph boy must have led to Sparta. But who am I to judge? After all, this is a secular, progressive university. Still, all you care about is your precious reputation. It comes before everything, even science. And then you wonder why students despise you.”

Handley threw a plaintive glance at his colleague. “I can’t handle this ordeal. What is happening to our institution? And above all, why is this happening in my tenure? Two of my best students... After everything I’ve done for them! I gave Samuel a seat at my dinner table and offered him my beautiful daughter in marriage. And this is the gratitude I receive!”

“Right before the end of the semester, too!” Ellsworth replied sympathetically.

“Let me see Griffin,” I demanded through my teeth. “I don’t care whom you drag into this. I will stand before the entire Scotland Yard force if necessary. I have nothing to hide, and I don’t need anyone’s protection.”

Handley pulled his tie off his neck and wrapped it around his fist.

“Go,” he muttered half-audibly, swinging the silk ribbon towards the door.

* * *

The drowsy nurse on duty barely stirred as I entered the chilly hall of the infirmary. All curtains were closed tight at Griffin’s request, who was the only patient there that day. For a minute I lingered at his bedside, studying the outline of his scrawny body under the white sheet. He did not acknowledge my visit in any way, even though he was wide awake. His eyes were fixed on the ceiling, and his hands were still clutching his notebook.

A malicious thought flashed through my head. This was my opportunity to exact revenge, however superficial. I could threaten to expose his failed experiment to our fellow students, to make him the laughing stock of the entire University College.

But that moment of gloating lasted only a second. I reminded myself that I was a doctor in training and, as such, took the liberty of feeling his forehead. Now, it was not much warmer to the touch than the metal bedpost. I estimated that his body temperature was barely hovering above thirty degrees.

Judging from the hue of his skin, his experiment was not a complete failure. He looked even paler than before, which led me to conclude that he had succeeded at destroying some of the pigment in his red blood cells.

“What a shame, Samuel,” he began, still staring upward.

His voice was surprisingly strong, given his wretched condition. He did not look defeated in the least.

“I had every intention of initiating you into my work,” he continued, “but you simply cannot keep a secret. You’ve babbled to Handley and Ellsworth, haven’t you? No, you cannot keep your mouth shut.”

“Neither can you,” I retaliated, sitting down on the edge of his bed. “You ought to consider gagging yourself for the night.”

“How much did you hear?”

“Enough to confirm my theory that you were not here to study medicine.”

“I wish I could,” he lamented. “Sometimes I wish I could take interest in something as mundane as medicine and practice it for the rest of my life. I wish I could be content with Handley for a professor and his homely daughter for a wife. But I’ll never be like the others. I always suspected it, but when I came here, all doubt was removed. This is no place to practice science.”

His head twitched on the pillow, and his gaze shifted to me. This sudden attempt to make eye contact threw me into a state of slight panic. I came close to jumping up from his bed. His icy hand released the notebook and seized my wrist.

“I must leave at once,” he declared.

“Perhaps, it would be for the better,” I muttered faintly. “No need to stay in a place where you feel stifled.”

For an instant I thought that he was going to ask me to abandon everything and follow him, to the end of the world, wherever he was going. I don’t know what made me think he would propose such a thing.

He released my wrist as suddenly as he seized it.

“By the way, you need not fear,” I continued. “Nobody will find out.”

“Oh, yes, they certainly will find out,” Griffin objected. “The whole world will — in due time. If you ever revisit Plato’s Republic, read the story of Gyges, the Lydian rogue who found the ring that turned him invisible. I will accomplish what Gyges had endeavoured, only through science instead of magic. And those rotten hogs from academia who scoffed at me will tremble. The whole world will tremble.”

The whole world! Griffin despised it enough to want to hide himself from it, yet at the same time he coveted it enough to want to dominate it.

“Will I ever see you again?” I asked.

“Not if everything goes according to my plan. I’ll be sure to visit you when my work is complete. You won’t see me, but you’ll hear my voice and feel my grip.”

He arched his back on the mattress and laughed.

“Jonathan, you’ll kill yourself!” I said, rising to my feet and backing away from his bed.

“Don’t let your hopes soar.”

* * *

Five days later Griffin left the university, citing poor health in his exit letter. One afternoon I returned from the lectures and found the boarding suite cleared of his possessions except for one cracked tube that he left behind and which I kept as a souvenir.

Once again, I could spend the nights under my roof without the fear of suffocating. Once again, I was king of the laboratory. Not that it mattered anymore. My fellow students began flocking back to me, their demeanour apologetic, almost servile. I did not respond to their insinuations. Their voices blended into one indistinct buzz.

The only voice I heard distinctly was that of my former roommate. Jonathan succeeded at infecting me with his contempt for University College. I began viewing that place with his eyes and feeling stifled there. Once my coronation site, it suddenly became my prison. Graduation could not come soon enough. I did complete my solo demonstration on the distinction between the bovine and human strains of tuberculosis and even received an award which left me completely indifferent.

Needless to say, I never accepted the teaching position that Professor Handley had promised to me. Nor did I end up marrying Elizabeth. It was difficult to say which one of us experienced greater relief after the breaking off of the engagement. Sometimes I would catch her quizzical, pitying gaze.

Stevenson continued writing to me, sending drafts of his stories and poems, but I never responded.

I felt that by continuing to love my respectable, philistine life that Jonathan despised so, I would somehow betray him. Perhaps, if I proved myself worthy and denounced all things ordinary, he would return to me and share his secrets at last. I knew those sentiments were completely absurd and ludicrous. I owed Griffin nothing. No man should hold such power over another.

And yet his memory continued to hold me captive, even ten years after our parting. Yes, I still believed in the concept of an immortal soul, and I would sell mine just to know whether Griffin had succeeded in his outrageous quest. Was he still alive? Or had he become a casualty of his own experiments? Having no way of learning about his whereabouts, I nurtured my fantasies, perfectly aware of their destructive effect on my brain. Sometimes I would see objects levitating, as if held by an invisible hand, hear his malicious, haughty, caressing laughter.

When nobody was watching, I would pinch, slap and shake myself, trying to break free from that bizarre vision of Jonathan, the white-haired, garnet-eyed angel dissolving into air.

Copyright © 2011 by Marina J. Neary

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