Wednesday, 22 April 2009

26. William Makepeace Thackeray - 'The Devil's Wager' (1836)

'it appeared that the holy father could not manage the desired prayer.'
(Peter Haining, ed., Gothic Stories of Horror and Romance 1765-1840, Penguin, 1973, p.492)

This is the first of two stories drawn from a Peter Haining curated anthology of 'Gothic Stories of Horror and Romance'. Unsurprisingly, given its moniker, this tale tends towards emphasising the horror side of things.

Thackeray opens with a Gothic flourish which surely even in 1836 had an element of the parodic - presumably deliberate. It is a florid, archetypal setting of the scene that deserves quoting in full:

'It was the hour of the night when there be none stirring save churchyard ghosts - when all doors are closed except the gates of graves, and all eyes shut but the eyes of wicked men.
When there is no sound on the earth except the ticking of the grasshopper, or the croaking of obscene frogs in the pool.
And no light except that of the blinking stars, and the wicked and devilish wills-o'-the-wisp, as they gambol among the marshes and lead good men astray.
When there is nothing moving in heaven except the owl, as he flappeth along lazily; or the magician, as he rideth on his infernal broomstick, whistling through the air like the arrows of a Yorkshire archer.
It was at this hour (namely, at twelve o'clock of the night,) that two things went winging through the black clouds, and holding converse with each other.'

He then breaks with this studiously ominous prose style; there is an almost debunking bathos in his reversion to a duologue remisicent of one of Poe's more philosophical asides: reminding me of 'Mesmeric Revelation' (1844), for example. This dialogue is established between a demon-messenger, Mercurius, and the soul of Sir Rollo, a dead knight in purgatory, whom the demon is supervising, indeed keeping him in line through winding his tail around his neck. The two establish a wager that would enable Rollo to ascend to heaven - if only he can get a living person to save an ave (prayer) for him, given three opportunities. First he tries his niece, who is startled by the visitation 'and of course fainted' (p.486) and when revived refuses to save the ave because the knight goes on to insult her current suitor, Edward. In a move which sums up the freewheeling style of this tale, Thackeray spells the niece Matilda's name in at least three different ways.

Next the pair intrude upon a friar, Father Peter, and his drunken company, who are predictably most amused by the spectacle: 'a person with hoofs, horns and a tail rather distubred the hilarity of the company.' (p.491) As is clear in my epigraph, this inebriated friar is unable to utter a prayer, and indeed is manipulated by Mercurius - who edits the hymnbook - into singing a satirical, anti-Church song:

'My pulpit is an ale-house bench,
Whereon I sit so jolly
A smiling rosy country wench
My saint and patron holy.'

A decided dose of satirical humour is evident throughout this tale, bringing this horror tale perhaps surprisingly into the orbit of WMT's novel, Vanity Fair (1847-8). The third visit is to Rollo's brother, a prior who had entered into a pact with the devil 'never to say a prayer.' The dead knight is by this point unable to contemplate winning the wager, faced with a gloating Mercurius, cutting 'a hundred jokes at the expense of his poor associate.' (p.493)

He enters the room of his brother, a 'wicked and maligant sorcerer', with no hope; as amusingly put by WMT: 'he entered his brother's room more for the five minutes' respite than from any hope of success.' (p.494) Yet, Rollo manages to develop a more wily strategy, taking Father Ignatius into his full confidence and then tricking him into saying the ave, and thus leading to his brother taking his place in hell. Thackeray's vivid tableau at the end includes a memorable description of the miserable Ignatius being dragged downwards by Mercurius towards hell: by his long beard.

This story was enjoyable, much like one of the tales inserted by Dickens within hihumours contemporaneous saga, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). Thackeray tells a basically moral tale, but invests it with enough diabolic incident and satiric good humour to make it a worthwhile read.


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