Douglas & McIntyre
Daniel O’Thunder

Book details:

October 2009
ISBN 978-1-55365-435-3
Hardcover
6" x 9"
392 pages
Fiction
$29.95 CAD

Awards

Douglas & McIntyre

Daniel O’Thunder

Excerpt / Additional Content

Night has fallen as the Devil emerges from his lodgings in Mayfair, lingers for a moment in the baleful sputter of a gas-lamp, and then limps away through the London fog towards Regent Street. He has been awake since late afternoon; or rather, he has been awake all along, for the Devil does not sleep. Instead he reclines for periods of malevolent immobility, in which he broods upon ancient hatreds and marshals his energies for reprisal. At such times his eyes glow crimson with the fires within, and wisps of smoke issue from the neck of his shirt, causing whosoever might be lying alongside him—such as an actress, or a half-guinea whore from Mother Clatterballock, or just the crumpled ruination of a flower-girl—to utter exclamations agonizing to our Saviour and leap to her feet, clutching her smock in consternation. Afterwards he sits before the mirror with his pencils and his paints, preparing himself. This may take an hour and more, for the Devil is ancient, and lined, and vain as a fading tragedian.

Regent Street is a clatter of carriages; a young whore in exotic plumage loiters on the corner. She steps forward with a brazen greeting as the Devil approaches, but it dies in a start of recognition. The Devil had her once before and the horror is with her still, for he was in one of his moods that night and he rode her as if she were a jade, until she thought her bones must bow and her sinews burst. The whore shrinks back with a hissing intake of breath and hurries away, followed by the desiccated gentlewoman who attends her. The Devil continues on his way, his footfalls echoing iambs on the cobblestones, clip-clop. He wears a low slouching hat with a curved brim, and tall riding boots in the Regency fashion, and a black coat that has been démodé these thirty years, for the Devil stalks through the world at a measured pace. Of late, indeed, he has been nagged by the sense that his pace remains unchanged whilst all around the world is accelerating, harnessing dark inchoate energies as it tends towards some point of culmination, as yet unglimpsed beyond the horizon. It is a vertiginous sensation; he hates it. It leaves him with a vague and creeping dread.

The Devil pauses as he turns towards the Haymarket, trying to decide what he will do with the evening. Suddenly fingers are plucking his sleeve.

“Is it the doctor, then?”

A ragged woman has emerged from an alleyway behind him. Apparently she has mistaken the old-fashioned black coat for a medical man’s, or perhaps she is simply trying to impose her last frail hope upon a hopeless situation.

“God save, you, sir, are you the doctor?”

Here at least is something to engage his interest, so the Devil suffers himself to be led. The alley is foul with refuse, human and otherwise. The ragged woman takes him through a door and up a narrow stinking stairwell to a tiny stinking room. There are tens of thousands of such dwellings in London, scarcely bigger than coffins, where sons of Adam and daughters of Eve live six and ten and four-and-twenty to a room, all curled together like maggots in a wound. In the guttering light of a candle stub there is a weakeyed man who rises to one elbow, and a filthy pock-marked boy and an even filthier girl. A bundle of rags in the corner mutters to itself and weeps, thus identifying itself as a living entity of the grandmaternal species. In another corner an infant lies on a bed of straw. A little boy, wrapped in a shawl. He is pale as death; the breath rattles in his tiny chest, and he shivers uncontrollably. “Oh, sir, can you help him?” the woman asks, beseeching.

Mingled with the human stench of the room is the sickly sweet odour of cholera. The Devil smiles. By morning the boy will be stiff and still, and the others will follow soon after: the eternal marionette-march to the grave. Assuming a look of professional assessment, the Devil takes the shawl from the infected infant, and leaves him naked in the straw.

“Expose him to the air,” he recommends. “Don’t give him water, no matter how he cries. And place your sure and certain hope in Providence.”

Departing, the Devil takes the shawl with him. The Haymarket throbs with activity: carriages and gentlemen and louts and nymphs of the pave, all jostling together. Shouts from a gin-palace, and an altercation spilling from a chop house doorway. Perhaps the Devil will go to the theatre tonight, or perhaps not; the theatre bores him past endurance, as does all of London. A handbill informs him of a pugilistic exhibition above a dance hall near Lincoln’s Inn Fields; possibly he will go to that, although pugilism is no longer what it was in the blood-red days of Broughton and Figg. He sees a boy and a little girl, huddled in a doorway, and slants towards them.

He comes upon them from the left, of course, for such is his ancient tradition. The Devil always approaches from the sinister side.

“Would you like a penny?” asks the Devil. He produces one out of the air, a playful conjuring trick he employs for the entertainment of the weak-minded. “Take it, then. A penny for your soul.”

The Devil smiles, but the boy just looks at him. He is ten or twelve years old, the boy, sullen and filthy. The little girl is younger, with hollow cheeks and hair that might be golden underneath the grime. A little sister, apparently: clumsily cared for, dearly loved. She shrinks against her brother as the Devil’s gaze falls upon her, and the urchin hugs her protectively. There is of course no hope for such as these, nor should there be.

“Is she cold?” asks the Devil.

The boy shakes his head, but the night wind is keen, and the little girl shivers. The Devil extends the shawl. “This will keep her warm.”

The boy hesitates, but finally he takes it, and wraps it around his sister’s thin shoulders.

“There,” says the Devil. “Snug as a bug.”

When the boy looks up, the Devil is stalking away, trailing a faint odour of sulphur and eau de toilette. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Perhaps he will go out into the country. The Devil despises the countryside even more than he despises London, but at least it is different there.

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