The news that Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, had proposed marriage to Philomena Bucket, spread across the island with the well-documented rapidity of wildfire. On reflection, this is probably not the best image to employ, as wildfire has no chance of surviving the damp misery of Hopeless, Maine. However, as similes go, it somehow conveys a better sense of urgency than the ominous progress of the more appropriate and all-encompassing sea-fog.
It is fair to say that the fact of the popular barmaid of The Squid and Teapot conquering the heart of Rhys had caused no little amount of excitement. In itself, this was not particularly remarkable, with Philomena being regarded as something of a beauty, despite – or possibly because of – her excessively pale, almost albino, features. The main aspect of the romance, which concentrated the minds and caught the attention of the islanders, was the break in tradition. As you will appreciate, the role of the Night-Soil Man has always been regarded as quasi-monastic, with the bearer of the lidded-bucket nobly standing apart from his fellow man, forever separated by dreadfully unsociable hours and an excessively unpleasant smell. Only once before in the history of the island had such a thing happened. Then, as now, most folk wished the happy couple well, but as might be expected, there were the inevitable naysayers, those who shook their heads and swore that no good would come of such disdain for the status-quo.
“No good will come of such disdain for the status-quo,” intoned Reverend Davies, idly swatting at something very small and tentacled that had unwisely settled on his trousers.
“I take it that you won’t be blessing the marriage, then?” enquired Doc Willoughby.
“I doubt they’ll even ask me,” said the Reverend. “The Bucket woman and I have little time for each other.”
Doc Willoughby leaned forward and said, in a lowered voice, “Durosimi O’Stoat maintains that she is a witch.”
“Well, he’s a fine one to talk,” said Davies. “The O’Stoats have always been card-carrying heathens. But the Bucket woman has been a disruptive influence from the day she first set foot on this island, and by bewitching the Night-Soil Man – for mark my words, if what you say is correct, that is exactly what she has done – she has shattered one of the great traditions upon which our society is based.”
“That’s a bit strong,” said the Doc, “after all, it isn’t the first time it has happened. Wasn’t it Bartholomew’s grandfather, Randall Middlestreet, who gave up his calling in order to become a family-man?”
Doc Willoughby had no great affection for Philomena, but had even less for the concept of traditional values.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” snapped Reverend Davies irritably. “Anyway, I didn’t come here to talk about any of this rubbish. My haemorrhoids have been playing up. I need you to take a look…”
In the attics of The Squid and Teapot, Ariadne Middlestreet and Philomena were ransacking boxes and chests, looking for some suitable wedding-apparel.
“I am far more romantic than Bartholomew,” said Ariadne, wistfully. “I waited so long for him to pop the question, in the end I had to do the proposing myself. Would you believe it? Oh, how I wanted to have the perfect wedding, but he wasn’t bothered. Do you know what he said when I told him I wanted to be married in something long and flowing?”
Philomena shook her head.
“He said, ‘Oh, that’s fine. We can stand in the river. It shouldn’t be too high at this time of year’. That man cannot take anything seriously.”
“I don’t think I’ll have that trouble with Rhys,” she said. “He’s finally come to realise that he doesn’t have to be a Night-Soil Man for all of his life.”
“And he does scrub-up well,” said Ariadne with a grin.
To all intents and purposes, Durosimi O’Stoat had little interest in the mundane goings-on of Hopeless, and usually chose to stand aloof from the other islanders. This changed when Doc Willoughby mentioned, during the course of conversation, that the Night-Soil Man intended marrying Philomena Bucket. Durosimi’s interest was immediately whetted. He had long been plotting to dispose of the barmaid, whom he believed to be a powerful witch and an enemy. Having witnessed her abilities first-hand, however, he accepted that he had no chance of defeating her… but the Night-Soil Man could yet prove to be her Achilles Heel.
Durosimi reflected on this as he stared through the windows of his cheerless living-room, watching ribbons of grey mist swirl through the dark, stunted trees. He had yet to decide how he would destroy the Night-Soil Man, along with Philomena’s happiness. What he must not do is give her any indication of his responsibility for her lover’s demise, for if she was as powerful as he suspected, then he could expect no mercy. He would have to protect himself, and only when grief and anger had reduced her to her lowest ebb, would he feel safe enough to show his hand and strike. In the meantime, blame for the Night-Soil Man’s death must be fixed squarely upon another’s shoulders; some unsuspecting fool who would be unaware of what was happening, and unable to avoid her wrath.
A sudden thought slipped into Durosimi’s head, and an unpleasant, thin smile creased his face. Oh, it was so delicious. This would really hurt the witch, and the spell would not be too difficult to achieve. He could destroy, with just one stroke, both her lover and her best friend.
“Now, what is the name of that infernal hound?“ he thought. “Ah, yes… DRURY!”