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He looked at his friend and wondered how he still lived. Such a strong character, such a powerful personality, such an irrepressible force of will and resolve confined in so small and fragile a vessel. He knew, as he took in the narrow-shouldered frame and the thin, birdlike face bleached yet paler by the bright sun, that his friend would not be long among the living.
Even now, his presence in this world was attenuated, fading, like the image of a man unfixed and dissolving on an exposed photographic plate. And all the time, as they sat on the bench looking out over the pale sand of the beach and the glittering shield of the English Channel beyond, he was aware how starkly his own robustness contrasted with his friend’s infirmity.
As could be gathered from the sometimes uneasy glances cast by passers-by, there was nothing attenuated about the larger man’s presence in the world. The conversation between the two was scant. Theirs was an acquaintance of long standing where companionship alone often sufficed. Also, the larger man was afraid of tiring the other. It had been years since they had last met, and the deterioration of his friend had alarmed him.
‘We’ll head back to Skerryvore in a while,’ said the gaunt man. ‘Fanny will have prepared something to eat.’
Despite the summer warmth, he wore an ill-fitting jacket of heavy velveteen draped over insubstantial shoulders. There had been talk of seeking out a more curative climate – less tainted airs and brighter suns; the American West or the South Seas, perhaps – and the heavy-set man wondered if his companion would still wear the same jacket under friendlier skies, and if those skies would at long last bring some colour to his pale complexion.
‘It’s this damned book as much as anything,’ said the frail man without moving his gaze from the sea but clearly having read his friend’s concern.
‘It consumes me so, eats at me – yet I can find no clear framework for the telling of it. I know exactly what it is I want to write about, I know that at its heart must lie a tale of the duality of human nature, about the good within the bad and the bad within the good, but every day it confronts me with a blank page.’
‘The duality of human nature, you say?’ asked the other.
‘Although we pretend otherwise,’ said the frail man, ‘we are all manifold. There are bright angels and dark demons in each of us. It is a subject that has consumed me since childhood. You know I inherited that dresser – the one carpentered by Deacon Brodie – from my late father. It is such a beautifully crafted piece and, as a child, I would stare at it in daylight wonder – but at night... oh, at night the thought of it sitting there in the dark filled me with dread, thinking that the ghost of the other Brodie, the night-time Brodie, would steal into our house with his gang and murder us all in our sleep.
‘As a boy, I became obsessed with Brodie’s story, burned into Edinburgh’s history – a prominent and respected member of Edinburgh society by day, the worst villain by night. I would have this nightmare where Brodie would be in my room; I would just and no more make out in the shadows this tall, dark figure wearing a tricorn hat.
‘He would cross the room, the tools of his daytime trade rattling in his satchel against the pistols of his nightwork. He would lean down over my bed, his neck encircled by the steel band they say he wore to cheat the hangman. As he did so, I would see both Brodies as one: his smile would be courteous and benevolent and at the same time a malicious, cruel grinning.’
He paused for a moment.
‘I have it still, you know – the Brodie dresser, I mean. I brought it with me here to Skerryvore. Anyway, Brodie’s tale fascinates me still and I want to tell something of the like. Something not just about good and evil, but about their coexistence in the same personality, and all the shades and contrasts between them. About the dualities and conflicts within the human soul.’
He laughed weakly. ‘Perhaps it’s the Celt in me that leads me to such obsessions. Or maybe it’s because our country itself has a divided personality: that Scotland’s dual sense of self echoes in its sons. Whatever its source, I am driven to write something about the duality of man’s nature.’
He sighed, the shrug of his narrow shoulders almost lost in his voluminous jacket.
‘It’s just that I can’t seem to pin my story to its page.’
The larger man remained silent for a while, he too directing his gaze out to some unfixed point over the water.
‘If you have want of such a story,’ he said eventually, ‘I can tell you one.’
And under a bright but cheerless Bournemouth sun, Edward Hyde told his frail friend, Robert Louis Stevenson, his tale…
Next: The Scream
Hyde, by Craig Russell, is published by Constable in hardback next month, priced £16.99