Authors: Ian Weir
Tags: #Fiction, #Canadian Fiction, #Canadian Author, #Surgeons, #Amputations, #England, #Historical Fiction, #Grave Robbers, #Dark Humour, #Doomsday Men, #Body Snatchers, #Cadavers, #Redemption, #Literary Fiction, #Death, #Resurrection, #ebook, #kindle
Also by Ian Weir
Copyright Â© 2014 by Ian Weir.
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher or a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). To contact Access Copyright, visit www.accesscopyright.ca or call 1-800-893-5777.
Edited by Bethany Gibson.
Cover and page design by Julie Scriver.
Skyline illustration by Chris Tompkins.
Paper texture by www.bashcorpo.dk.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Weir, Ian, author
Will Starling: a novel / Ian Weir.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-0-86492-647-0 (bound) ISBN 978-0-86492-571-8 (epub)
PS8595.E47D65 2014 C813'.54 C2013-908079-1
Goose Lane Editions acknowledges the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF), and the Government of NewÂ Brunswick through the Department of Tourism, Heritage, and Culture.
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To Jude and Amy, always;
In memory of my father
1st May, 1816
A man standing straddle-legged, pelvis outthrust and one-eyed lad in hand, braced on the lip of merd-urinous Fleet Ditch in the blackness of a cool spring night with an
. That's where it all began to turn â assuming that anything can really be said to begin anywhere, and isn't one great tangle of consequence snarling all the way back to Adam's first rumpety-bump with Eve. But that was the moment â right there â when an irrevocable step was took, which led to the next and then to the one that followed after, faster and faster, slip-sliding down a mountainside of feverish intentions 'til all at once the bottom had fallen away and there we were, plunging headlong and confounded to Perdition.
And there at the turning stands Dick Whycher.
Dick was a clerk at a ship chandler's. He'd been out on a spree with a mate of his, a carpenter's apprentice called Toby Fegen. They'd visited various boozing-kens in the winding streets by the river, and now they were stumbling homewards. Toby led the way, the light from his bull's-eye lantern lurching in the murk like the beacon on a ship at sea. The streets were slippery with rain from an earlier storm and Toby splashed through puddles.
“Half a second,” Dick had announced, drawn up short by nature's call.
“I wouldn't, Dick,” Toby warned, as he saw what his friend was about. “I would not do this. I've told you before.”
Dick belched in reply, and rootled in his breeches.
That had been nearly a minute ago, for Dick Whycher was a prodigious pisser. It was a source of considerable pride to him, along with his teeth, which were largely unrotted. His hair was thinning, alas; but no man was ever perfect, and in any case Dick Whycher wore a hat, a low sloping affair that perched at a rakish angle as he gazed up into the night, listening to the splashing from below. The night was surprisingly clear, for London. The storm had blown itself out an hour ago and now there were stars, by God, twinkling down upon Dick Whycher pissing. It filled him with a sudden wonderment, as if something immense was being hinted to him about the universe and his especial place within it, which he might if just slightly more sober have grasped in an instant of blinding transformation.
“I know you don't believe me, Dick,” Toby Fegen was saying darkly. “I'm just saying it's a Fact.”
Toby had come up beside him, breeches firmly buttoned. A sailor had told him once of a creature like a tiny eel, with teeth, that lived in the rivers of somewhere treacherous such as Africa or possibly Peru, which would swim up the stream of them as pissed in the water and straight through the solitary eye of the breeches-adder, with consequences too shocking for any man to contemplate. The sailor knew a man this happened to, who died after three days of shrieking. Besides, it was Science.
Toby Fegen was not a learned man, but he knew about Science. This was a bold new age of discovery and Science was everywhere on the march, overturning new rocks each day and exclaiming at what wriggled underneath. There were men with telescopes looking at the stars, and men in balloons rising up towards heaven. And if there were microscopic eels in Africa or Peru, then Toby was not about to piss in Fleet Ditch. It was foetid and reeking and clogged with refuse, dead dogs and cats and rodents and worse, and God only knew what teeth might exist on any microscopic eel as could live in that.
“Jesus,” Toby said abruptly.
“Eh?” said Dick, still gazing skyward.
Toby raised the bull's-eye for a better look. “Down there.”
A bundle of rags, or so he first assumed. Dimly illuminated beneath the dwindling arc of his waters, which sparkled in the lantern light. But it wasn't rags.
“Jesus Aloysius Christ,” said Toby. “On a stick.”
The man lay on his back, half sunk in ooze. A little man in a weskit that had once been red, with spindly legs akimbo, eyes wide and staring blindly up at whoever was pissing down. One arm was outflung, as if to grope for his spectacles, which poked up from the mire just out of reach. A cracked round lens caught the light and glinted.
Dick Whycher saw at once what must be done.
“Guy's Hospital,” he said. “Across the bridge. We'll dredge him out and take him there. We'll take him to the surgeons.”
“The man is dead! And not just dead, but murdered. Look â someone's gone and slit 'is throat!” In the lantern light it gaped in a dreadful grin. “We'll clear off, Dick, is what we'll do. Before someone comes by and supposes we 'ad somethink to do with it.”
But Dick was clambering down into the ditch and calling for Toby to do likewise.
“Dick!” wailed Toby. “'Ee's long past needing of a Nospital â there's no surgeon in the world could be of use to 'im!”
of use to the
, Tobe â and they'll pay. Four quid is the value on this one. Which is four quid more than you're worth, squeaking and flapping your arms. We'll take him to the Porter at Guy's Hospital. There's a door for it round the back.”
“'Ow do you â ?”
“Because I know it, Tobe. I once met a man, all right? Now give us a hand!”
Dick Whycher always seemed to know. He knew a man, or one who knew another man, or lived just round the corner from his cousin, and was according-wise stuffed full of the most remarkable bits of information from London's underbelly, sifted like coins from the sludge of the sewers. Now he was knee-deep in the ooze, squelching down to hoist the little man and snapping for Toby Fegen to make himself less useless.
For another moment, Toby stood rooted. It was horribly wrong, in every conceivable way. The man had been murdered and surgeons were ghouls and one instant of wretched misfortune was all it would take â a bleary-eyed Charley sloping round a corner, with a bull's-eye and a snort of surprise â for this to end with two necks in a noose and the Newgate Hornpipe for Toby and Dick. And that wasn't even taking account of the eels.
Four pound, on the other hand, was four pound.
With a gargle of desperate misgiving, Toby set down his lantern and slid.
Thus the turning began.
The monstrous re-enactment of a birth â so it must have seemed, if you'd been there in the darkness watching. Peering from the mouth of an alley, perhaps, with the rotting hulks of the buildings hemming you in like creaking old ruffians of evil intent, though what you'd be doing in such a wretched neighbourhood at such a time of night I couldn't say, a decent soul such as yourself. Two midwives cursing in the moonlight, knee-deep in slime. The twisted infant hauled upwards, pale and dripping. Then out of the ditch and away down the cobbles, the newly-born braced between the two of them, head lolling and toes dragging. Bound for the Death House and the slab and the surgeons, and one of them in particular. A man named Mr Dionysus Atherton, whose deeds â both prodigious and unutterable â are at the heart of all that follows.
And here I am at the end of it, scribbling these words by the stub of a candle in a small stone room, with St Paul's bell nearby counting out the days and hours that remain to me. A man might be moved to take stock, at such a moment. Reckon up the tally of a lifetime: the good deeds entered in one paltry desperate column â Christ, can there really be so few? â offset against all the sprawling ledgers of the small and mean and ill, with sheets to come, whole folios, of Opportunities Frittered/Squandered/Lost. A man might turn to prayer at such a moment. Just in case â cos you never know, do you? Perhaps there really is something beyond, though Meg Nancarrow said no â nothing but the darkness, she said, Old Night plummeting with vast black falcon's wings â and Meg was someone who should know the truth, better than any soul now living on this earth. A man at such a moment could begin to wail aloud in pure panic rising up, and desolation.
I will write as swiftly as I can. There is so very much to say, and such little time left in which to say it. I need you to know what Dionysus Atherton did. You must have the facts, and judge for yourself. What he did to Your Wery Umble Narrator, but most of all to others. To Bob Eldritch, rising from that table with a peacock scream, and Meg Nancarrow, and my poor friend Isaac Bliss. The awful deeds committed and the worse deeds done in consequence. The breaking of the very bonds that make us human, in the quest for being something more.
But once you've finished, you'll know the truth. I'll have achieved that much, at least. And I made my choices and did what I did, and have no right to be blubbering now.
If they ask you, tell them I smiled.