From the Darkness, Stars
A Short Story from the World of Podwitch
At nine o’clock and fifteen on Christmas Eve in the year 1841, two figures, a lamplighter and his linkboy, entered a London alleyway. Its sides were lined by narrow tenements and wreathed in icy fog.
The lamplighter’s flame flickered vainly against the shroud of grey and a ladder rested on his shoulder. He whistled the opening refrain of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen at a particularly slow pace, adding an air of festive melancholy to the scene. The tune echoed off the walls about them with an almost church-like resonance, before being snaffled into silence by the mist. As they moved, their footsteps crackled on the frozen ground. Upon finishing his carol, Medywn Liphook muttered under his breath. ‘He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness.’
His apprentice trailed behind, skinny and ill-clothed for such inclement weather. He clutched an unlit lamp, ready for sparking at the time of their parting, which was due shortly. Every few paces he was forced into a trot to keep up. It wasn’t that his master walked quickly, indeed he moved in little more than a lazy shuffle; it was more that the man’s stride was twice that of the boy.
Liphook’s work took him high above the streets and the homeward-bound throng and this, he felt, reflected its importance. As a giver-of-light, he had always viewed his vocation as vital for the wellbeing of society. Indeed, he would say even further; to that of humanity. On this holiest of nights, the very association put an extra swagger into his stride. After all, he was allowing the blind to see too, wasn’t he? Well, for a modest charge anyway. In truth, Medwyn Liphook tended his lamps if not with diligence, then with apathetic expertise, garnered through years of repeated duties. Topping up the tins with oil and trimming the wicks, wiping over the glass panes, which were often caked in so much grime he could barely make an impression on them, and so had long since given up trying too hard. His lamps were mainly located in the Strand, stretched out between Charing Cross and St Mary’s, with another six nearby. This was their second circuit of the night. That’s how Liphook liked it; two rounds, regardless of the weather.
A whimper sounded a few feet behind him, and the lamplighter glanced over his shoulder.
‘Why are yer whining like a new-born pup?’ he snarled.
The boy shrank back in the darkness. He had known many a cruel strike from the hand of Medwyn Liphook and become more adept these days at avoiding them. Besides, the lamplighter had grown incapable of fast movement; a lifelong love of dark ale and strong tobacco had seen to that.
‘I’ve told yer before, it’s not for me to ‘old yer ‘and every night is it? Yer’ve lived on my good charity for long enough. It’s time for yer to pay yer way. If not, I swear yer’ll bring me to bankruptcy, which won’t go well for either of us.’
If good charity equated to sharing a single room in a down at heel area of Whitechapel, sleeping on a bare wooden floor with no blanket, close to an ill-fitting door which admitted terrible drafts in all weathers, then Medwyn Liphook spoke the truth. If it also meant surviving on leftover scraps of food that not even a dog would eat, then it should be considered that the boy lived like a king.
Matches was the name Liphook had given him when he had first come to live with him; ‘on account o’ yer new vocation, and not to mention the fact you’re as skinny as one’. It was a rare joke that seen the lamplighter tumble off his chair in a drunken stupor. But at least it had allowed Matches to slurp down the rest of his new master’s unfinished tankard in hurried gulps, and snatch a few mouthfuls of cold mutton stew, the gristly meat as chewy as boot leather.
No, it was not a happy life young Matches led with Liphook, although he hadn’t been sorry to see the back of the orphanage, his only home from birth, where he had been restricted only to the inside of its walls every day (and no further!).
At least Liphook would sometimes send him on errands and, while exposed to the brief freedoms they offered, Matches was able to lose himself on the streets of London. He darted furtively between buildings, taking in the sights and sounds of the city, from the grand streets around the Bank of England to the shady wharves at Wapping, where the wrong thing whispered could get a person killed.
He had learned to anticipate when Liphook was on the verge of inebriated sleep, and therefore able to judge how much time he might be able to take for himself, without risk of a harsh word or blow to the back of the head. That is, unless he was caught on the pinch from the market stalls of Spitalfields. Indeed, these excursions were what kept his brain in the right order, as he liked to think of it.
However, Matches’ troubles were deeper sown than the harsh reality of his life with Medwyn Liphook. You see, he was afraid of the dark and, for an apprentice to a lamplighter, this was a very unfortunate affliction.
The thought of stepping out into the night compelled in him an overwhelming sense of dread, setting his teeth a-chattering and the feel of icy hands running up and down his spine. And yet, admitting this to his master was not something he dared consider. After all, it would have made little difference other than to make things worse. Liphook would have dragged him out night after night regardless. Either that or drown him in the Thames out of spite. No, Matches suffered his fear relentlessly, and alone.
As for tonight? He took little comfort that it was Christmas Eve. Darkness was darkness after all. True, the streets were busier than usual with drunken revellers, but this somehow made him feel lonelier than ever. Outside in the cold he would remain until the early hours, with no kindness or understanding shown to him. This only served to make him even more aware of how pitiful his existence was, and how long and hard life’s road, indelibly laid out ahead of him, would be to travel.
‘Sorry, Mr Liphook, sir,’ he responded to the barbed rebuke. ‘Just cold is all.’
The lamplighter regarded him with disdain.
‘No wonder,’ he growled. ‘The pace yer walk. Try goin’ faster.’
‘Yes, sir, only it’s just I got blisters, as me shoes are worn through to me feet.’
The lamplighter leaned down until his face was inches from Matches’ own. His breath clouded around the boy’s head. And it stank.
‘Don’t start wiv me boy. After all I’ve given yer. Once yer’ve earned yer keep, then we’ll fink about luxuries like shoes. Until then, yer’ll do well to remember that blisters are good for yer. Toughen up the skin, they do.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Matches looked down.
Medwyn Liphook spat onto the street.
‘Let’s get going. There’s a tavern up ahead. Plenty o’ custom to be had there if yer follow what I’ve taught yer.’
They walked on, the lamplighter mumbling under his breath: ‘I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame.’
Matches heard the tavern before he saw it. Sounds of raised voices billowed into the night; a hefty blend of laughter, shouts and song. Combined with the fog, the effect gave the impression of strange, distant calls, like those of mythical Sirens, beckoning them forward toward the unknown.
‘God said let there be light,’ the lamplighter rasped.
Several glowing spots suddenly emerged from the gloom, hovering in front of them like sprites frozen in flight. Liphook looked down at Matches smugly, as if to say there you go lad, see how they heeded my call!
Inching forward, they drew closer to the sounds of merriment, and the lights revealed themselves as flickering candles, fixed in sconces on the walls of a building. Windows framed silhouettes that weaved and bobbed inside, its denizens enjoying the inn’s hospitality. A sign hung above, and Liphook’s light was just enough to tell them they had arrived at The Mitre.
Matches blew into his hands and took in the scene. He felt no envy, nor bore any ill will to those inside; quite the opposite in fact. His overwhelming feeling was one of warmth as he observed the festive celebration, combined with a sense that it was right for people to spend their Christmas Eve in such a manner. That or attending church.
‘There are some rich takings in there, Matches,’ Liphook drawled greedily. ‘If you play it like I’ve taught yer.’ He held out his flame. ‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come.’
Matches raised his lamp for lighting, his eyes widening as the wick took. He held it up, glad to have his own torch, although its impact was miserable if truth be told.
‘Make sure you’re back here at a quarter past midnight.’
Medwyn Liphook’s voice cut through the festivities like a knife slicing flesh. The boy jumped and the lamplighter cuffed him around the head.
‘Concentrate!’ he hissed.
‘Now go on, and don’t dawdle!’
With that, the lamplighter turned and shuffled into the fog. He resumed a whistled rendition of another carol, ensuring it sounded more like a funereal dirge.
Matches followed the tune as it faded until, finally, he was left alone in the darkness.
Tightening his grip on the lantern handle, he watched his breath billow in small clouds, captured in the flickering flame. The movement resembled a slowly waking genie.
Footsteps approached a little way along the pavement, and he watched a man and woman stumble out of the fog, leaning heavily on one another and rolling from side to side. Wordlessly, and unaware of his presence, they staggered up to the tavern door and crashed through it. For a brief moment, the sounds inside were amplified and hurled into the street. That and the smell of roasted meat and vegetables, causing Matches to lick his lips and hold a hand to his empty stomach.
He hovered uncertainly, wondering if he was positioned in a spot that would benefit from the attention of potential customers.
Deciding there was better to be had, he shifted closer to The Mitre as another figure loomed out of the night. This time it was a young gentleman, clutching a cane and moving steadily on his feet. A long overcoat and muffler protected him from the cold, while a low hat perched on his head.
Upon arrival at the tavern the man paused, glancing each way along the street before entering. Brushing past him, an elderly man lurched out of the hostelry. He leaned up against the wall and breathed deeply of the night air.
Matches watched him cautiously, and then made his approach, brandishing the torch.
‘Light you’ ome?’ he offered.
The old man took a moment to focus on him, and then raised his stick as if to lash out. But he lost his footing and stumbled before righting himself gingerly.
‘Leave…me…alone,’ he slurred, and staggered into the fog.
Matches was about to resume his post on the opposite side of the street, when the tavern door burst open yet again. On this occasion two youths, several years older than himself, hurtled out, almost bowling him over in their haste.
‘Watch the spark!’ yelled a voice as they barged past, spinning him around on the spot.
One of them glanced back over his shoulder with an expression of glee before disappearing. Matches heard two short barks of laughter over the sound of receding footsteps.
The street grew quiet again, bar the ever-wilder sounds of revelry issuing from The Mitre. He steadied himself and checked his flame, taking a few moments to warm each hand against it. Before long the tavern door once again burst open. This time the young man in the long overcoat, who had not long entered, stood in the doorframe. Breathing heavily, he turned his gaze up and down the street.
‘L…light you ‘ome s…sir?’ Matches stammered.
When the man’s eyes located him, they bore into him as though seeking to skewer his soul.
‘Did you see which way they went?’
‘Two ruffians. Older than you.’
‘Yes, sir, that way, sir,’ Matches said, pointing.
Nodding in acknowledgement, the man whirled away.
‘Light your way, sir?’ Matches called after him.
The man hesitated and then turned around. He raised a finger and beckoned the boy forward. Matches approached, holding his lamp aloft. Leaning down to him, the man placed a hand on his shoulder.
‘Can you light my way safely?’ he asked.
The boy nodded. ‘It’ll cost you sixpence, sir,’ he added hesitantly, mindful of the punishment Liphook would deal out if he returned to find him empty handed.
The man’s fingers tightened on his shoulder, biting into the flesh and causing him to wince.
‘Light me through this darkness to those two,’ the man said quietly. ‘And I promise rewards beyond your imagining.’
Matches gulped and then nodded.
‘Take my coat in one hand and hold your flame high in the other,’ the man added as they set off. ‘No matter what you see, do not let go. Your life may depend upon it.’
Frowning, the boy did as he was asked, gripping the overcoat and noting its fine quality.
He jogged alongside the man, grasping his flame as steadily as he could. Their movement was in contrast to the ambling plod of Medwyn Liphook and the boy could feel his lungs, feeble at best, begin to pound against his ribcage.
The fog was thinning, drifting in front of them in patches, creating the illusion that parades of ghosts were passing by in quick succession.
Matches was intrigued as to how the man knew which direction to go. His flame made little difference, but nevertheless his customer strode along, gazing ahead intensely, occasionally stopping to kneel and examine the floor, or hesitate to glance up at the street names painted on the corners of buildings high above.
After they had been on the move for little more than thirty minutes, Matches had lost track of their whereabouts. They stopped in a quiet backstreet.
‘We’re close,’ the man commented. ‘You must prepare yourself.’
‘Prepare myself? For what, sir?’ Matches asked.
The man put a finger to his lips. In one fluid motion, he reached out his hand and somehow smothered Matches’ flame, extinguishing it and leaving them in darkness. The boy’s heart leapt at being surrounded by his greatest fear with no way of re-lighting his spark. That and the thought of what Liphook would do to him when he returned with the takings of just one customer. The combination of concerns caused him to start shaking uncontrollably.
‘Those two miscreants are in an alleyway over the street,’ the man said, speaking in a whisper. ‘Light of finger, they have spent this hallowed eve working inns across the city to relieve punters of their possessions and finances. Do you follow me?’
‘They have made the mistake of taking something from me.’
‘More precious than you could possibly imagine.’
‘Are you rich, sir?’
He knew the question was rude but Matches felt compelled to ask it regardless. The man smiled.
‘This item is not mine to own, merely to safeguard. But nevertheless, I must retrieve it, or the repercussions will be unthinkable.’
Matches’ eyes widened.
‘Wait here,’ the man said. ‘And, thank you for your illumination, without which...’
He turned and disappeared. Matches shrunk back against a wall. Somewhere distant, he could hear the reassuring sound of carol-singing. He was grateful for the distraction.
A sudden movement caught his eye. It was fleeting and he blinked. How could he possibly have seen anything? The night was pitch-black. And yet he had, distinctly. Crouching down, with the intention of making himself as small as possible, he stared in either direction. There, to the left, and again to the right. Shapes, darker than the night, were congregating up and down the street. They moved impossibly quickly and seemed to have no distinct shape, as though the previous illusion of phantoms thrown by the moving fog had been transformed into something altogether more hellish and filled with sinister intent.
Matches also realised that the sound of singing, that had provided him comfort for a few precious moments, was now silent. In fact, he could hear nothing at all. Not the plethora of familiar London sounds; the clip-clop of horse hooves, or rasping grind of the wheels of hansom cabs. There were no footsteps, distant or otherwise. The silence was both alien and overwhelming. Tears welled in his eyes and began trickling over his cheeks and he gripped the extinguished flame wick tightly to his chest.
‘God said let there be light. God said let there be light. God said let there be light,’ he repeated over and over again.
Looking back, later in life, he was never certain what he became aware of next, be it the hand on his shoulder, or the sudden burst of radiant light that enveloped the street about him.
The effect of the latter was as if he had died and gone to Heaven, having missed the very circumstances that had caused his demise. He was forced to shield his eyes with his hands and cried out.
‘Something wicked has this way come,’ whispered a voice in his ear.
The man had returned.
‘Come, boy. Look at me.’ His voice was firm. Hard even. Impossible to ignore.
Matches opened his eyes gradually, filtering out the unearthly light. Glancing up from where he crouched, he saw the man standing over him. The light was emanating from above his head, so that his visage was silhouetted. His hair hung down either side of his face, shaken loose by his recent pursuit.
Matches suspected then that he was witness to some sort of vision, inextricably linked to the legends of Christmas.
‘Are…are…are you an…an…angel?’ he stammered.
The man peered at him in amusement, before letting out a chuckle. His countenance softened and he tilted his head in understanding.
‘Stokes is my name, Braeburn Stokes. And I am no angel, fallen or otherwise. But I am the bringer of light that you so crave.’
Matches lifted a hand to shield his eyes.
‘Is it the light o’ the Lord?’ he whispered.
Braeburn Stokes hesitated, answering carefully.
‘Perhaps, perhaps not. The business of the Lord is best left to more learned and holy men than me. But, I do know there is no light more powerful than the one that I wield.’
Matches looked about him and, to his horror, saw that the moving shadows that he thought had been the figment of his imagination brought on by the dark, were now flitting at the edges of the light surrounding them. They were formless, twitching in irritation and apparent excitement.
Braeburn Stokes watched him with a stunned look on his face.
‘You can see them?’
Matches nodded, not taking his eyes off the restless shapes.
‘Then it is truly fortuitous that we have met.’
A number of the shadows charged the wall of light but appeared to have no way of penetrating it. Matches started and jumped to his feet.
‘Steady,’ Stokes commanded. ‘They cannot harm you under the light.’
‘What are they?’
‘In Latin, the Praestrigiae; in our tongue, the Severals.’
‘Are they dangerous?’
Stokes tightened his grip on the boy’s shoulder. ‘They are.’
‘Are they the Devil’s work?’
‘If only it were that simple,’ sighed Braeburn Stokes. ‘They are always here, invisible to most. For some reason beyond my understanding they flock on this night more than any other. London is the metropolis of our nation, and Christmas Eve a fulcrum of their attention. They aim to disrupt, to upset, to spread hatred, and what better to feed their insidious pleasure, than undertaking this on a night where goodwill is perhaps more prominent in people’s hearts than normal. Rupturing the order of humanity, in the service of something greater, is their goal.’
‘How do they not approach us?’
‘Ah, now that is my secret, and will take lengthy explanation.’ He pulled a pocket watch from his waistcoat and flipped it open. ‘We have little time.’
‘You are a linkboy are you not? Tasked with ensuring the safe conveyance of people to their place of destination?’
‘Then, on this holy night, you and I share a common purpose.’
Matches peered at him, still distracted by the shapes that were persevering in their attempts to come closer.
‘While it does not strictly form part of my duties,’ Stokes continued. ‘You have inspired something in me. Christmas Eve should be a time when every man, woman and child can walk in peace. Tonight, I feel compelled in ensuring people can go about their festive celebrations without fear. Do you not agree?’
Matches nodded, then added, ‘For a small charge?’
‘Our motivation should be a little different to that of Medwyn Liphook.’ Braeburn Stokes smiled. ‘My service will be free to all who benefit from it.’
‘You know my master?’
‘I do indeed, and a crueller and more miserly individual to find oneself in the employ of, it would be hard to imagine.’
The boy looked at the floor. He had trained himself to disguise his loathing for Medwyn Liphook, who had shown him nothing but contempt for so long.
A finger touched his chin, lifting his head upward until he was looking into the face of Braeburn Stokes.
‘Would you join me?’ he said. ‘I am in need of assistance, and it would seem our purpose is not so very different. Besides, you clearly have a gift of sight that I have not seen in others.’ He gestured towards the Severals.
Matches nodded eagerly, not least because he had no desire to be left alone with the shadow creatures massing about them.
‘Good. Then I will need to know your name.’
‘Matches Sir?’ Stokes repeated doubtfully.
‘Well, Matches. The hour is late, and we must commence if we are to offer safe passage to as many people as we can.’
‘Just one thing, sir?’
‘What happened to the two boys who stole from yer?’
‘They took the source of my light, thinking it was a mere trinket. Little did they know its real worth. And now I have it back, they will be left to the whim of the Severals. I have no doubt they will succumb, given their propensity for wrongdoing. But tonight, I am more interested in protecting the souls of the good. And the innocent.’
Matches had no clue what the man was talking about but nodded anyway. He held his lamp out.
‘Spark me up, sir?’ he asked quietly.
Braeburn Stokes smiled and took it from his hand, placing it on the ground.
‘You won’t be needing that anymore.’
‘But Liphook’ll kill me if I go back without it!’
‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come,’ Stokes replied. ‘You need not concern yourself with Medwyn Liphook any longer.’
Matches stared back at him, uncertain.
‘By coming with me, for a time, you will struggle to believe all that you witness. You would do well to remind yourself of the power of stars. Theirs is a magic that you or I cannot comprehend. Whenever I feel afraid, I simply look up and remember that I am not alone, for the stars are always there, even on the foulest nights. Indeed, that is when they are at their brightest. No matter how desperate things become here on earth, the stars shine out from the darkness. We must draw strength from them.’
Matches considered this before he replied.
‘Like the kings in the desert in the holy tale?’
‘Yes, Matches, like the three travellers from afar.’
Something overcame the boy at that instant. A calm trust; faith in this stranger from whom flowed a light brighter than any he had seen in his life. He had little to go on other than their brief exchange of words, and yet knew that this was a moment that, somehow, was to change his life. And with it, all of a sudden, the shifting shadows at the edge of his vision disturbed him less.
He took the outstretched hand of Braeburn Stokes, noting that the light seemed to emanate from something held aloft in his other hand, something small. Whatever it was caused him to think of a tiny sun. At the same time, the sound of distant carols returned, and they hesitated for a moment, listening to the single soprano voice lifted in worship. It drifted up above the streets, navigating the stacked buildings, seeping between cracks and alleyways, arriving softly to the ears of passers-by.
Comforted by its sound, and cocooned within the protective light, man and boy stepped into the night as it began to gently snow. Matches noticed how beautiful the dancing flakes looked, shimmering in the brightness as they fell.
It is said that of all the Christmases in London’s history, that of 1841 was the most peaceful. Although few could put their finger on the precise reason why. For many years, fanciful tales circulated, from Clerkenwell to Trafalgar Square, of two spirits who had visited earth and walked the streets that night, offering safe passage beneath sacred light.
Some claimed they were fortunate enough to have encountered the spirits first-hand and been accompanied by them while traversing from places of work or celebration. They spoke of their experience falteringly, as if recalling snatches of a fleeting dream. But their eyes glistened at the memory of the light within which they had briefly walked, and the comfort it afforded against the threats of the night. Others recalled peering out through shutters or between curtains, candles in hand, catching glimpses of two figures resembling a lamplighter and his linkboy, but unlike any they had seen before or since. For it seemed they had been bathed in impossible brightness as they passed by.
Many struggled to remember the events with true clarity, but one thing was common; the feeling of goodwill it nurtured within them was long-standing.
As for Medwyn Liphook; later that same night, fuelled by ale and spirits, he returned to the spot outside The Mitre and waited for his linkboy, who did not return. Consumed by anger, Liphook stumbled the streets in a drunken rage, cursing the boy’s name, and yelling ‘Cast out into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ over and over again.
Some who saw the lamplighter were troubled by the faint notion, from somewhere deep in the recesses of their minds, that he was being followed by countless shifting shadows. Others recalled that those same shadows appeared to be clinging to his arms and legs. But they could not swear to it, and so preferred to bury the thought, until they had forgotten it completely.
Nevertheless, Liphook was found lifeless on Christmas morning, covered by a light dusting of snow. For a time, gossip circulated that his body lay next to the extinguished lamp of a linkboy, and that it was this which had caused him to trip and crack his head on the icy ground. But, like everything in time, these rumours faded.
Finally, of the man and boy, no public record remains. Certainly nothing to suggest that, following their service to the inhabitants of London that night, they took a hansom cab to Windsor Castle in the early hours and feasted with its residents on goose, guinea fowl and duck. Or that those who waited at table observed how the boy was mesmerised by the beauty of the evergreen trees that stood about the castle grounds, decorated with candles, ribbons and sweets wrapped in shining papers in all the colours of the rainbow. Or that they noticed his particular enchantment at the stars that glimmered at their tops, leaving him tongue-tied and beaming.
Indeed, it is most likely that the few people present at the feast that night, if indeed such a feast even took place, carried their observations with them to the grave.
And finally, it is said, by those who know of such things, that a guardian of light found his apprentice that Christmas Eve, and that the boy began his long life in service to a cause higher than Medwyn Liphook could ever have imagined.
Indeed, it would be true to say that no light would ever burn more brightly than that which the boy, who had once gone by the name of Matches, inherited and nurtured for the rest of his days.