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Authors: Anthony O'Neill

The Lamplighter

BOOK: The Lamplighter
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Also by Anthony O'Neill


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New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2003 by Anthony O'Neill

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

and design are trademarks of Macmillan Library Reference USA, Inc., used under license by Simon & Schuster, the publisher of this work.


Text set in Garamond No. 3

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data O'Neill, Anthony.
The Lamplighter : a novel / Anthony O'Neill.
p. cm.
1. Philosophy teachers—Fiction. 2. Edinburgh (Scotland)—Fiction. 3. Serial murders—Fiction. I. Title.
PR9619.4.O54 L36 2003
813'.6—dc21 2002036453

ISBN-10: 0-7432-5429-5

ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-5429-8

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There is a dreadful Hell

And everlasting pains;

There sinners must with devils dwell

In darkness, fire and chains.


Divine Songs for Children

If God has thought proper to paint “thief,” “robber,” or “murderer” on certain brows, it isn't for nothing; nay it is for something—that the like of me should read the marks, and try to save the good and virtuous.


Edinburgh police detective, 1861


sixty of them in Edinburgh and they swarmed out of their crevices at dusk and swept through the city in a systematic raid on the streets, closes, wynds, and parks. Beginning as always with the ornamental lamps outside the Lord Provost's home, they clambered quickly to the heights of Calton Hill, coursed down the gilded esplanade of Princes Street, curled through the courteous crescents of the New Town, and sallied into the sooty recesses of the Old Town labyrinth, regulating themselves by the church bells and shirking only those darker tendrils of the Cowgate from which even the light recoiled. In less than two hours they knitted together a jeweled chain of lights that on clear evenings resembled an inverted cosmos of sparkling stars and on nights of dense fog—when sea mist merged with chimney smoke, locomotive steam, and the noxious emissions from overcrowded graves—helped enclose the city in an enormous glowing lamp shade. They were the “leeries”—the lamplighters—and they were rarely seen in the sun.

Evelyn lived in the Fountainbridge Institute for Destitute Girls, in a district of gasworks and foundries where the lamps were few. She was not the youngest (six) and far from the oldest (sixteen) of almost a hundred orphans. The building itself was an erstwhile slaughterhouse, the dormitory a tilted killing floor, and the past still lingered in the bloody sawdust that had infiltrated the cracks and powdered the rafters and even now, on the trigger of a significant thunderclap, would sprinkle across the startled girls like a benediction.

But these were not unhappy times. Broth and buttermilk were moderated with fresh meat and greens, typhus was unheard of, tuberculosis and scarlet fever rare, and only respiratory complaints and toothaches kept the girls spluttering and moaning through the night. As well, the orphanage governor's vibrant young wife indulged the girls as her “bairns,” and took a special fancy to young Evelyn, who with her raven hair, blue Highland eyes, and boundless imagination was like herself reborn. She offered the girls toffee drops, shared books from her considerable library (she was the daughter of a respected advocate), and promised that she would one day escort them on a trip to the Pentland Hills, where they would see the same farm animals which to that point they knew only from their squeals (the slaughterhouse had been relocated to larger premises across the street). The woman's enthusiasm was so infectious that it even managed to mollify the Calvinistic extremes of her husband, Mr. Lindsay. But then her visits to the orphanage became less frequent, for she was imminently to give birth to a bairn of her own. And when she expired in a manner that was eminently mysterious—for her constitution was as resilient as Evelyn's—a pall settled over the Fountainbridge Institute for Destitute Girls that had about it the stench of martyrs' blood, tormented souls, and a shame as old as Deuteronomy.

Mr. Lindsay withdrew all sugar from their diet, rationed the meat, replaced
Robinson Crusoe
The Redeemer's Tears,
Jonathan Swift with John Knox, tore the woodcuts from
The Pilgrim's Progress,
stepped up the Scripture readings, and tossed away the punitive tawse in favor of a knotted birch cane. Unsettled by the new severity, the nurses assured the monitors that it was a natural grieving process that inevitably would pass. But it did not pass.

On the dormitory ceiling above the rafters there was a flamboyant mural of indeterminate age—“The Signs of the Zodiak”—beneath which innumerable livestock had unceremoniously been hammered between the eyes. Invested with life by the pulsing glow of the streetlamp outside the window, it had become the prism through which Evelyn, clamped by sheets in her iron-frame bed, would nightly unleash her feverish imagination. Weaving astrological deities with the stories of Mrs. Lindsay and her own rudimentary knowledge of history and geography, she would mesmerize the other girls with flights of fancy and slide into sleep on paths already slippery with dreams.

When Mr. Lindsay had the ceiling painted black, shortly after his wife's demise, her imagination found compensation in the streetlamp itself, which in summer drew moths, in winter flurries of snow, and each evening its own Prometheus—the leerie—who himself began to assume properties of great mysticism. In a silence undisturbed by so much as the rustle of bed linen she would follow his cheerful whistle and crisscrossing advance up the street to their very own lamp, hear the snap of his ladder clamping onto the crossbar, the tread of his ascent, the uncapping of the glass lid and even—if she strained hard enough—the hiss of running gas and the pop of ignition. She never saw more of him than his billowing shadow (like the moths blown to fantastic proportions), but in her stories she was able to contrive for him not only a precise appearance but a host of progressively more ambitious itineraries, so that from his beat in Fountainbridge he had soon progressed to the docks of Leith, then across the waters to the boulevards of Paris, and before long was drawing his fire map from the bazaars of Constantinople to the quarters of Calcutta and the temples of celestial Peking. The monitors warned her that this was no time for nocturnal storytelling, but Evelyn was stubborn by nature and nurture, and responded to subjugation with only rebellion. Inevitably she was ushered to the office of Mr. Lindsay.

“It gives me no pleasure to see you here, child.” He was a figure cut from boilerplates, with hair of steel grey and pouches of rust beneath his eyes. “But you are thick-sown with ideas that serve you ill, and it is my righteous duty to turn you into a worthwhile servant of the Lord.”

In the absence of his own daughter he saw his charges not as surrogates but as beings that feasted greedily on God's grace at the expense of his own, and he despised them in a way that for him was indistinguishable from love.

“I should not have to tell you that life is rarely sweet, child. That a fiery imagination scorches all before it, and the independent will needs to be crushed to prevent later grief. You should remember that life is but a way station to the greater realms beyond, and if you turn your mind to anything it should be the rewards that await you there. Though I doubt,” he added somberly, “that you are meant for paradise, child, and I tell you this without joy. The righteous are destined for the palace of heaven, but for reprobates there is only a room with no doors and windows, for beyond it there is only darkness.”

“Then I shall dream as I like,” said Evelyn boldly, “for no harm can be done by it.”

At which point Mr. Lindsay caned her legs so righteously that she limped for a fortnight.

While she healed, the visits of the lamplighter were succeeded by no stories, but in time she could not restrain herself, and the furtively whispered adventures of Leerie enthralled the others with the added varnish of wickedness. The monitors were appalled, fearing that they themselves would be censured. But it was another incident entirely that returned Evelyn to the governor's notice.

Colored inks were strictly forbidden in the Institute and the girls had been divested of all drawing implements but for the slate pencils that were returned dutifully at the end of each lesson. But one winter's day during noon recess a fantastic chalk apparition materialized on the blackened courtyard wall: a majestic dragon, part Babylonian and part
and rendered with exemplary style. When Mr. Lindsay discovered it, however, he saw only a demon, and he ordered the girls lined up in the dormitory.

The matron was instructed to search the girls for the incriminating utensil. But when she came to Evelyn she found the young one refusing to open a tightly clenched right fist.

“Pinion her,” Lindsay ordered, and, lodging his cane under one arm, he forcibly raised her hand and uncurled her fingers.

A blunted stick of white chalk fell to the floor and rolled to the tips of his gleaming boots.

He stared at it for endless seconds and eventually raised his eyes.

“They have a saying where I come from, child. ‘If you draw the devil on a wall, you invite him to appear.'”

“I drew not the devil,” Evelyn insisted.

“By God, you will hold your tongue, child!” Lindsay was spluttering with rage. “The devil speaks as much through your insolence as he does through your fantasies. And aye, if he responds only to the birch then so it must be. I ask not for forgiveness, because I act only in the name of greater mercy, but be assured the responsibility hangs about me like Matthew's millstone. So step into my office, child, and let it be done with haste. No amount of imagination will shield you from God's displeasure.”

She uttered not a bleat through the caning, but from across the street came the transitional cry of a calf turned to veal.

There had never been enough consistency in the orphanage for anyone to be surprised by a change of heart, so when Evelyn was called again into the governor's office some weeks later, directed to a corner desk, provided with several blank sheets of paper, pens, and inks, and instructed to draw, she did not question why, though she suspected that no good would come of it. Her abstinence had by that time become so wearying that she could not resist, in any case, and she filled sheet after sheet with vivid images. Mr. Lindsay inspected them as he would an unfavorable testament, but he did not punish her for them, simply locked them in a drawer and ordered her to return the following day.

At the end of two weeks she was introduced to a handsomely attired man with a star-shaped scar under his right eye. Bright-eyed and energetic, with thick black hair shiny with macassar oil, he dropped to his knee and smiled affectionately. He was holding a china doll.

“Hullo, Evelyn,” he said. “Or do you mind if I call you Eve?”

BOOK: The Lamplighter
9.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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