The Fiend in Human

The Fiend in Human by John MacLachlan Gray

Book: The Fiend in Human by John MacLachlan Gray Read Free Book Online
Authors: John MacLachlan Gray
burnt animal fat and fish. Visually, the room is obscured by thick grey smoke (a loathsome miasma carrying every disease in Europe), pierced by a narrow shaft of light from a hole in the roof.
    Whitty has found himself in some appalling hovels, but nothing to compare with this.
    ‘Be it ever so ’umble, Sir. Consider yourself my guest.’
    ‘Most grateful, I am sure,’ replies the correspondent as though charmed by the quaintness of it, lighting the stub of a cigar he has found in a pocket, the better to breathe without retching.
    As they cross the room Whitty’s eyes adjust to the gloom so that he can now make out a blackened chimney, which stands out from a brick wall like the flying buttress of some dismal cathedral. Blackened beams hang from the roof and down the walls, supported by a floor of packed dirt. The two men pass beneath an iron gas pipe whose flame provides a feeble illumination; as they reach the opposing side Whitty can see that the entire wall is a long, projecting wooden bench, in front of which stand a series of tables of various heights, sizes and shapes, with each one of them at some stage of collapse.
    Across the tables loll the torsos of at least twenty sleeping men, lying back to back for warmth, knees bent like sleeping infants. At the end of the room, a group of men and women huddle about the stove in blankets and coats the colour of soot. A few are toasting herrings, which smell strongly of overripe oil and add to the unwholesome sweetness of sheep fat. To one side of the stove, three men occupy themselves by drying the ends of cigars collected in the street.
    Whitty has never seen so ragged and motley an assemblage in his life – hair matted like sheared wool, unshorn beards slick with grease, pallor approaching a luminous green. Two men – either artists or thieves who stole from artists – wear tatty smocks; another sports a rotting plush waistcoat with long sleeves; another an ancient shooting-jacket.
    Even in such company, the appearance of the party who rises to greet Mr Owler defies comparison: his cheeks are so sunken that it is impossible that the man can have any teeth; a skeletal frame covered by an ancient coat, stained black and worn shiny; a shirt so brown with wearing that only close inspection can discern the shadow of a chequered pattern. The sight of the man is of such overpowering
wretchedness as to be almost comical. Whitty wonders for how much longer the man will be able to stand up at all, especially with the lady’s side-buttoned boots he wears on his feet, the toes of which have been cut out so that he can get them on.
    The man executes a wobbly bow. ‘Good afternoon, Henry. Lovely to see you.’ His voice seems to emanate from some distance away.
    ‘Good afternoon, Jeremy. Mr Whitty, allow me to present Mr Hollow, my former associate – former I regret, owing to illness and infirmity. Mr Hollow is a very fine poet.’
    Whitty bows; the hand in his feels not unlike a packet of twigs. ‘I am extremely pleased to make your acquaintance, Sir.’
    ‘Jeremy, this is a newspaperman, moniker of Whitty.’
    Replies Mr Hollow, ‘You have heard of The Husband’s Dream perhaps?’
    ‘Regretfully, I have not had that honour.’
    ‘Henry, we really must revive The Husband’s Dream .’
    ‘Should have done so already, Jeremy, but for the cost of paper.’
    ‘Very popular in the streets it was, in its day.’
    Owler turns to the correspondent. ‘And a stunning instructive piece of work it is, Sir. Imaginatively conceived and cunningly wrought. Consider: a drunkard falls asleep in the gutter and is redeemed in a dream. Simple, true, and wery uplifting to the sensibilities of all as read it.’
    ‘I shall certainly read it at the next opportunity.’
    ‘That will be difficult, Sir,’ replies Mr Hollow. ‘We have no copies for want of capital.’
    ‘And yet,’ says the patterer, ‘we must never forget as how the writer lives on in the memory of the faithful

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