Darkness fell on London, easing its inky fingers along the dust and filth of the streets of Westminster. Throughout the daylight hours (if that can be called day that only sees the sun through a thick and virulent haze), the city had been engulfed in a flood of noise, the surge of activity, the human neap and ebb of commerce swirling past houses and storefronts, up and down lanes, swamping market stalls and shops, pulsing to the frantic rhythm of a million hearts’ desires. June was creeping toward July upon a fetid wind, and the very air that day had held an unwholesome flavor of grit and decay that made the whores on the street smack their painted lips and gentlemen cluck desultorily to themselves. Even the blackened sweeps found the outside air no less oppressive than that within their suffocating world. It had been, as many reported that night, cringing in their homes with a shake of the head and a woeful gaze, “a particular London-y day.”
The crowds were gone now, and even the watch had left the streets abandoned to the dark. Yet the flavor remained to taint the breeze blowing up from the Thames. Like a woolen blanket left too long out-of-doors, the wind laid a thick, wet heat over the city that drove away all comfort. Such palpable weather might have led one to believe that night itself could congeal into a solid form, the shadows taking shape and substance to pass unseen through the streets of Westminster, past Abbey and Cathedral, Palace and Hall. The washing of the waves against the filth-encrusted banks of the Thames might have sounded like the steady plod of hooves pulling their weary weight along the earth. The lazy moaning of the wind over chimney pipes might have sounded like the creak of a carriage lumbering along. On such a night as this, who knows what one might imagine to inhabit the darkness?
A coach was making toward the river in fact, not fancy. Moving past buildings that were merely dark smudges upon a dark canvas, guided only by the sound of the sluggish waters, a black coach behind a black horse made a somber procession down, down into the lowest quarter of Westminster. The momentary flash of sulfur, the striking of a match, revealed two figures atop the box. One leaned forward in a black cloak, upright and alert as he clasped the reins. The other lolled beside him in a dirty shirt and no collar, a rounded hat with a dented crown balanced upon his knees, a blunt cigar clenched tight in his teeth. He leered out at the night from a single bright eye, the other being dead and milky white like the underbelly of a fish where a jagged scar creased his face. This fish-eyed man waved the match flame back to darkness, puffing easily so that the cigar’s fiery tip glowed with each slow drag as he fanned himself lazily with his hat.
Suddenly he leaned forward and grasped the reins, pulling the horse to a complaisant halt.
“Ssst!” he hissed to his companion, and listened. For a tense moment his one eye peered into the blackness, and nothing but the blackness looked back. “Close on by the place, I’d vager.” He spoke with a thin, whispery voice in the thick accent of the streets.
“Then get down and lead the rest of the way,” the cloaked man commanded.
The other turned his one eye upon his partner with a look of cold calculation, but only for an instant, and then a smile of genial camaraderie graced his stubbled chin. With a flourish he popped the hat onto his head. “Right you are, Mistah Vick,” he crowed, and leaped down into the dust.
Taking the bridle, he led horse, coach, and all for another several dozen yards, before coming to a stop.
“Are we close?” the cloaked man asked from his perch above, unable to penetrate the black.
“The vaters is lickin’ my boots as ve speak.”
“Is the boat by?”
“Right ’ere as I said it vould be.” The soft sound of a boot knocking against damp wood confirmed the fish-eyed fellow in his answer.
The cloaked man waited grudgingly for a moment, then descended the box and walked toward the other until his own boots splashed in the wash of the river. He was shorter than his companion by half a head, though his formality added a certain presence to his stature. “All right,” he admitted at last, tying the horse to a rotting post. “Go get it.”
The fish-eyed man took the cigar from between his teeth and snuffed it against the top of the post. Placing the twisted weed in his pocket for later, he gave a nod and a horrid wink, then strolled back to the coach, reached inside, and emerged cradling a heavy sack. This he carried in his arms down to the water before dropping it into the bottom of the boat with a dull thud.
The fish-eyed man grinned rudely in response to this harsh command, but said nothing. He merely bent to gather stones from the shore, dropping them into the sack’s gaping mouth.
“What are you about?” the cloaked man demanded, passing a hand across his sweated brow. “Hurry!”
“A little assurance,” the other answered, not ceasing in his labors. “Vouldn’t like to see this’n pop up in a for’night to go peachin’ on us.” He chuckled at the thought, and continued to add weight to the sack, testing the heft of it occasionally until he was satisfied. Producing a length of rope from somewhere unseen, he tied up the package into a lumpy, shapeless, but governable bundle. Even then he was not quite finished with his ministrations, for he suddenly pulled a knife from his boot, a thin stiletto.
“Here!” the cloaked man uttered in surprise, taking an involuntary step backward into the water. “What’s this?”
“More assurance,” the fish-eyed man clucked, and cut a few slits in the sack. “A bit o’ wentilation. To let the airs escape.” He leered at his companion. “Bubble, bubble, eh, Mistah Vick?”
The cloaked man shuddered. “You know your business well.”
His partner in these proceedings stood up with a groan. “They say it’s visdom in a man as knows as much,” he asserted with a sage look. Setting one foot into the boat, he steadied it while the cloaked man stepped in and sat as far from the sack as he could position himself. “Aye, they say it’s a vise chap knows ’is own business,” the other repeated, pushing off smoothly and taking the oars.
The boat flew silently into the night, setting barely a ripple across the flowing surface of the Thames. “Labor and vages, that’s all it amounts to these days,” the man went on, quite as though he were at home before his hearth instead of pulling across a river of darkness. “A family as kep’ at farmin’ for ten generations gives it all up so as to labor in the city and earn better vages. And vhat’s the end? Only pain and ’ardship from not knowin’ their business.”
“Hush, can’t you, man?”
“You sees vhat I’m gettin’ at?” the fish-eyed man went on, oblivious to the importunate request. “The trick to livin’ a fine life, as it were, the sort o’ life your master lives, is to do the least labor for the best vages. See? And that comes o’ knowin’ your own business, as I said.”
The other man produced a green kerchief from within the folds of his cloak and began to mop the streaming sweat from his face. Yet he made no move to discard his heavy garment, pulling it tighter about his throat, as though he could protect himself from some contagion on the wind. “It’s a vile business,” he whispered in disgust, peering into the blank face of the water.
“That it is, that it is. Wile and shameful.” The fish-eyed fellow grinned. “O’ course, for the right vages, a man might never be forced to it again.”
“You’ll get your wages,” the cloaked man snapped.
“But you see, there’s vages, and then there’s vages.” The oarsman paused in the easy flow of his narration and glared with a bright eye and a livid scar at his cloaked companion, demanding attention.
Slowly, the cloaked man ceased his mopping and returned the fellow’s stare. “Go on,” he muttered.
The fish-eyed man stopped rowing and let the boat drift into the stream of the river. “Your master knows ’is business, Mistah Vick. Vell, ve knows ’is business, too. Vages might be had o’ such knowledge. Fine vages.”
The cloaked man seemed confused by this observation at first, then affronted, and finally he leaned back in the boat and fell deep within himself. His fish-eyed partner was silent now, letting the lapping waves against the hull do his work for him.
At last, the cloaked man spoke. “My master places great trust in me.”
“O’ course ’e do. That’s vhy you makes such ’igh vages. And that’s vhy you finds yourself ’ere this night vith me, attendin’ to ’is business. The thing to ask yourself is, can ’igher vages be got from such trust as ’e places in you, eh, Mistah Vick?”
Again they were silent. For five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour the only sound was the water of the Thames and the occasional dip of the oars as the boat held its place on the river.
The cloaked man sat upright at last. “How far out are we?”
“Far enough to be rid o’ this.” And without another word, the fish-eyed man heaved the bundle into the blackness below. A small patch of bubbles rose suddenly, white against the dark of the water as if to mark the place, but it soon dispersed.
“Good,” said the cloaked man, clearly thankful to be relieved of his charge. “Then let’s continue this discussion elsewhere.” He shuddered. “I don’t like the river at night.”
“Nor do I, Mistah Vick,” the fish-eyed fellow chuckled, pulling hard back in the direction of the shore. “No more do I.”
The boat and its occupants disappeared into the blackness. Behind them, the last white bubbles erupted on the surface of the water and danced about, drifting on the tide.
THE DEVIL’S ACRE. Copyright © 2003 by David Holland. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.