The Lamplighter
By Anthony O'Neill
Published by Scribner 
March 2003; 0743243498; 320 pages

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The Lamplighter by Anthony O'Neill Prologue -- 1860s

There were nearly 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 chim-ney smoke, locomotive steam, and the noxious emissions from overcrowded graves -- helped enclose the city in an enormous glowing lampshade. 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 with 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 Beowulf, 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?"

"This is your father, child," Mr. Lindsay informed her. "Mr. James Ainslie, the Laird of Millenhall."

Evelyn was puzzled. The matron had told her she had been dumped on the orphanage steps when she was barely the size of a turnip, and as far as she knew her surname was Todd, not Ainslie. And while she had often dreamed of her mother, she never thought it possible that she might have a father.

"I have only recently learned of your existence, Eve," Ainslie said. "And in truth I thought you had not survived. But now I have come to claim you from the Institute. I know it will be difficult for you to leave, but I assure you that you will not regret it. You must not resist, Eve. I urge you not to resist."

Evelyn looked into his hopeful eyes, smelled his sweet soap and lotions, and glanced over his shoulder to a governor staring down his nose like some city chambers statue.

"I will not resist," she assured Mr. Ainslie, who at once hugged her with conspicuous relief, as though she truly had a choice.

*

The transfer was effected with unusual haste, as though Mr. Lindsay were eager to be divested of her. She was not given time to say farewell to her friends, but the disappointment was quickly suffused by a mounting excitement. She was escorted to a waiting brougham and deposited onto one of the plush seats, the first time she had been in a carriage. When they swept around the corner it was impossible not to feel that she had begun a great adventure.

"Millenhall is a wee distance from here," Ainslie told her brightly. "You'll love it dearly, Eve. But I'd very much like it to be a surprise for you."

He produced a tartan scarf and secured it around her eyes, chuckling like a game player. But even the blindfold could not contain her imagination.

"We enter a country road," she declared excitedly as the carriage wheels trundled onto a dirt track. "Tree branches overhead. Sycamores -- I smell the sap."

Ainslie laughed.

"Chestnuts. Whin-bushes with a honey fragrance."

"Your imagination serves you splendidly, Eve."

She heard wood warblers, song thrushes, and other strange birds. She felt the shadowy caress of swaying branches, and inhaled air tainted by wood smoke and the tang of paper mills. She was intoxicated.

The brougham drew up, a gate creaked open, and they wheeled around a substantial forecourt. She was led across flagstones, through a poorly oiled door, and carried up stairs to a chamber smelling of freshly disturbed dust. Here Ainslie lowered her to the floor and closed the door behind them. He unfastened the blindfold.

She found herself in a bedroom, furnished with only a washstand, a chair, and a freshly quilted bed. The shutters were tight, the only light entering through a frosted gable window. But she thought it worthy of a princess.

"Do you like it, Eve?"

She nodded vigorously. She could barely contemplate such luxury.

"It's important that you settle in very quickly," Ainslie said. "And when the time comes we shall go places. On boats, on fox hunts, and we shall travel on trains. Would you like that, Eve?"

She thought there could be no greater pleasure.

"Later," he promised, smiling. "When your mother recovers."

He locked the door behind her, leaving Evelyn thrilled by the prospect of at last being embraced by the woman who had dumped her like a turnip on the cold orphanage steps.

*

But for a long time she saw nothing other than the paneled walls of her bedroom. Twice a day she was brought warm water and hot meals by Ainslie, who spellbound her with recollections of his travels and military service. He had lived much of his life in London, he said, and journeyed as a merchant seaman to Bombay and Java, caught shrapnel in the face in Sevastopol, and been stationed with the Royal Rifle Corps at the Gold Coast of West Africa, where he had played the pipes to the monkeys like the Pied Piper.

He produced watercolors and inks and encouraged her to paint, and as she had nothing else to do her output was prolific. Ainslie inspected each picture with enthusiasm, and seemed especially approving of those featuring an avuncular gentleman dressed in a peaked cap, blue fustian jacket, and grey scarf.

"Who is he, Eve?"

She told him it was Leerie.

"A man you know?"

"A man I have never seen," she replied. Her picture was in fact a composite of appealing features: the pointed beard of the old doctor who visited the orphanage, the emerald eyes of the maintenance man, the attire of the coalman.

Ainslie considered the matter. "And this Leerie...do you imagine that he might walk in those fantastic cities you draw?"

"There is no place he cannot go."

Ainslie encouraged her to show the lamplighter in all manner of exotic locales and situations: in storybook castles, in fabulous forests, soaring over waterfalls on winged steeds. The pictures were carried off at the end of each day, and she saw them again only when she was asked to refine a select few, as though they were being prepared for exhibition before the Queen.

*

Her incarceration, such as it was, was nothing new, and the bed was soft and capacious, the food plentiful, she had pretty new petticoats, and in health she flourished. She discovered one of the shutter leaves was ajar, and occasionally was able to see out to a neighboring graveyard overgrown with thistle and weed, and to the forecourt, where carts would frequently pull up laden with articles of furniture. The lodge was being hastily fitted out, it seemed, and into her own room Ainslie introduced a looking glass, a wardrobe, and a painting of the Zoological Gardens.

"Your mother will arrive shortly," he assured her. "And soon we shall go for a long trip -- to some of those same exotic cities you draw for Leerie."

That very afternoon she saw a trap pull up and a sandy-haired woman alight at the door. The woman, most agreeable in appearance, was greeted by Ainslie with an intimate smile and a whisper, and Evelyn, turning from the window, paced restlessly around her room, excited by the possibility that she had for the first time set eyes on her mother.

But when Ainslie came up that night he wore a funereal expression.

"I want you to come downstairs with me, Eve," he whispered, "and I want you to be very quiet and respectful. Your mother is very ill, as I have said, and may not recognize you."

It was the same person she had seen from the window -- she was sure of it -- and yet when Evelyn approached she found her mother unnaturally white, pale-lipped, and creased with dark lines. The woman trembled as she enclosed Evelyn in spidery arms, and smelled of powder and wax.

"Let me look at you, Eve," she croaked, and tilted her daughter's face to examine her with ill-focused eyes. "Can you ever forgive me?" she implored. "Do you think you might be capable?"

And though Evelyn was poorly acquainted with remorse and was reluctant to admit any measure of disappointment, she sensed no real love in her mother's voice, no genuine grief, and when she withdrew it was with confusion in her heart.

Later Ainslie discovered the loose shutter and had her windows painted over from the outside.

*

More furniture was shifted into position. She heard new voices, edgy murmurs, and once a woman's voice raised in indignation. Ainslie appeared one evening with an apologetic look.

"I regret that I've not been able to attend to you, Eve, but there has been much absorbing my attention. Soon, I promise, we will travel far. But in the meantime it is very important to me that you feel at home. I want you to think of this as the house where you have always resided. Do you think you could do that? Forget the Institute entirely?"

She suggested that it would be no disagreeable task.

He smiled. "Then if anyone asks, you will not challenge the notion that we have always been a family?"

It was a curious request, but she felt disinclined to resist.

"I fear your mother has worsened, Eve. I've had to call on a special doctor I know from my days in Africa -- a tribesman of the Ashanti. If you see him I do not want you to be alarmed. He could well be our salvation."

He left without locking the door.

When she ventured out some time later she heard a visitor being conducted around the lower floor like a prospective buyer. She waited at the top of the stairs and eventually Ainslie appeared with the strangest man she had ever seen.

He was exceedingly tall, as black as Crusoe's Friday, with a gleaming oversized head ringed with hieroglyphs. He wore flowing saffron robes and carried a scepter of interlocking bones. Chewing continuously and humming without melody, he made a sweeping survey of the hall, his eyes lingering on the Turkey carpets, wicker baskets, mounted stag's head, and other articles Evelyn had not previously seen, as well as on the cornices, the architraves, the paneling, the pilasters...on every distinguishing feature in the hall, in fact, as though making a concerted effort to emboss the images onto his memory.

When his head rotated toward the upper level, his eyes settled on Evelyn and his humming abruptly ceased. She felt pinned in place, violated by his scrutiny, but his broad lips quickly peeled back in a smile. Ainslie indicated that she should come down the stairs.

In the visitor's proximity she smelled herbs and ash. The man stroked her head and caressed her face with velvety fingertips, and in this simple gesture she perceived more tenderness than anything she had felt from her own parents. He examined her with his cloudy eyes, traced the contours of her neck and shoulders, and eventually resumed his tuneless humming.

He was taken on a tour of all the upstairs rooms, spending well over an hour in Evelyn's bedchamber alone, as outside Ainslie assured Evelyn that all was proceeding well and that shortly they would go on their great journey.

*

Her door was never locked from that point, but she was discouraged from moving from her bedroom, and even when she did she saw little but closed doors, covered windows, and incongruous furnishings. Her mother was still present and recuperating, Ainslie assured her, though she was too ill to be seen. Water and food continued to be brought up to her with prisonlike regularity, a long-case clock marked the passage of several days with its wheezy chimes, and Ainslie paced around with a bearing of increasing impatience, or perhaps apprehension.

*

One night the house timbers groaned as though squeezed by some supernatural force. A storm pounded the roof and lightning sprayed through the gable window, expanding and contracting her little room like bellows. A trembling Ainslie entered briefly and lit a candle by her bed, promising that it would soon subside. But the lightning was alarmingly close. The paneling appeared to undulate. An unpleasant odor invaded the room and the air rapidly chilled. Evelyn, with the blankets bunched up around her, watched her breath condense in clouds until she was convinced a spectral shape was sewing together in the air above the bed. And when the candle flame flared and hurled a very human shadow onto her wardrobe she could no longer bear it.

She bolted for the stairs, but halfway down Ainslie gathered her up and attempted to soothe her.

"Eve? What's wrong?" But he himself was shaking.

She told him a man had got inside her room.

"A man?" He exuded fear like a musk.

"In my room!"

"Well...who do you think he might be, Eve?"

She could not answer.

Ainslie forced a laugh. "Then we should find out, eh?"

He braced himself and started carrying her back up the stairs, his heart hammering against her like a fist on a door. Rain was spilling from the eaves and trickling in the pipes. As they inched stiffly down the hallway it was evident from the very quality of light that the room was not empty.

A yard from the door Ainslie crouched down and forced Evelyn to the floor. With stony features he prodded her back toward the room as though offering a lamb to some beast of prey.

Evelyn stared at his averted eyes, inhaled his sickly perspiration, and suddenly saw with great clarity that, whatever this man called himself, he was not her father. That he represented no security. And she understood very clearly, too, that the powdery woman had not been her mother. There would never be any journey, or any freedom.

She was alone, as she always had been, and stepping back with revulsion she was simultaneously drawn to the bedroom as though to a great fatality.

She turned and froze with disbelief when she saw the man, standing on the far side of the bed, his face gilded by the candlelight.

He had a pointed beard, a peaked cap, a blue fustian jacket, and a grey scarf, and his emerald eyes seemed to shine with all the lamps of Edinburgh.

She gasped in astonishment, and his face creased with genuine compassion.

"It's me, Eve," he affirmed.

His whisper was as light as gossamer, and the sincerity of his affection was manifest.

"It's Leerie..."

He beckoned her forward and she moved trancelike into the room. Ainslie shut the door behind them and twenty years later the streets were red with blood.

  Copyright 2003 Anthony O'Neill
Reprinted with permission.

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Synopsis

An atmospheric thriller set in nineteenth-century Edinburgh, Anthony O'Neill's elegant, darkly masterful novel is full of psychological suspense and first-rate horror.

Evelyn is a clever orphan at the Fountainbridge Institute for Destitute Girls. Enchanted by a cheerful lamplighter who fires the streetlamp outside her window each evening, she mesmerizes the other girls with flights of fancy. In a time before Freudian awareness of sexuality and the subconscious mind, such tales are forbidden by the institute's governor, who warns Evelyn to cease her nocturnal storytelling.

Evelyn defies him -- and is cast out of the orphanage and sacrificed to a shadowy figure claiming to be her long-lost father. Who is this man, and why does he lock Evelyn away in a hunting lodge?

Years later, the mutilated body of a professor of ecclesiastical law turns up on one of Edinburgh's finest streets; the grave of a famous colonel is ravaged; a shady entrepreneur is slaughtered while dashing for a train; and a retired lighthouse keeper is ripped to shreds while walking his dog -- all this after Evelyn, now a young woman, has reappeared in the city. What connects the victims? And what of Evelyn, anguished and appealing, who repeatedly claims to have dreamed the murders in great detail -- each time blaming a mysterious "lamplighter"?

Leading the official investigation is Carus Groves, a conceited yet effective police inspector desperate to cap his unremarkable career with a sensational case. Heading up the unofficial investigation is a disillusioned professor of logic and metaphysics, Thomas McKnight, and his assistant, Joseph Canavan, a strapping young gravedigger. Using reason, intuition, philosophy, and luck, these men race to solve the murders and unveil the source of Evelyn's torment, and in so doing penetrate the very gates of Hell.

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Author

Anthony O'NeillAnthony O'Neill is the son of an Irish policeman and Australian stenographer. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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