You may recall that, in the tale ‘Bigspoon’, the orphaned twins, Winston and Wendell Westonbirt, successfully convinced most of their fellow islanders that a giant spoonwalker was stalking Hopeless. It was the Night-Soil Man, Rhys Cranham who debunked the hoax, but having spent his formative years in the Pallid Rock Orphanage, Rhys had no desire to land the boys into trouble with Reverend Davies. Instead he gave them the fright of their lives, then discreetly let it be known that Bigspoon would not be returning.
It took some weeks for before the twins were able to put their fears to one side and steal out of the orphanage after dark once more. This was obviously against all the regulations, and indeed, common sense, but these were the very reasons that influenced their decision.
The Westonbirt twins escaped from their dormitory a few minutes after their nine o’clock bedtime, just as darkness was falling. All seemed to be going well, to begin with, but after walking for no more than half an hour, it dawned upon them that they had absolutely no idea where they were. According to Winston’s calculations they should, by now, be in a position to peer through the downstairs windows of the once notorious Madam Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. I have no idea what the pair hoped to see; Madam Evadne’s had long ago become little more than a social club, and there would be nothing remotely salacious to be witnessed by looking through its grimy windows (especially the downstairs ones).
Reluctant to let the adventure end so early, they walked on. The night deepened and fog thickened around them, distorting shapes and even the most familiar landmarks. After two more hours they had had their fill of adventure. All they wanted was to retreat to the safety of their own beds, but by now were hopelessly lost.
“I’m tired,” declared Wendell, sitting down on a rock, then swiftly springing to his feet again.
“That is hot!” he exclaimed, rubbing the seat of his trousers,
It was then that the fog lifted slightly; to their great surprise they were standing in the middle of a heat-scorched area of barren earth and piles of rock. Hopeless is somewhat devoid of areas of outstanding natural beauty, but the spot in which they found themselves was singularly unpleasant. In the dim light they could see deep fissures in the ground, which revealed, far beneath their feet, terrifying glimpses of raging fires. The very earth on which they stood was hot and, occasionally, jets of smoke would erupt from the most unexpected places. It would have been enough to strike terror into the stoutest heart.
Then, as the moon pierced the thinning mist, a single beam illuminated a cleft in the rocks which seemed to have been fashioned into a crude doorway. Smoke drifted from its dark depths.
Winston looked at Wendell and said,
“This must be Hell.”
“And that must be the way in,” agreed Wendell, nodding towards the smouldering doorway. “Now that would be an adventure to tell the others about.”
While Reverend Davies would have been gratified that some of his more robust sermons had not fallen on completely deaf ears, he would have felt some dismay to learn that two of his charges were contemplating visiting Hell.
Before either boy could move, however, a dark shape emerged from the smouldering doorway, a dreadful hump-backed figure, silhouetted in the moonlight.
“It’s the devil,” wailed Winston, and as one they ran blindly into the darkness, away from the Satanic scene in front of them.
It was over a century ago that a certain William Whiteway had the notion that there was gold to be found on Hopeless. His idea sparked little enthusiasm with his fellow islanders, but William resolved to dig his mine anyway. For five long years he toiled, delving deep into the earth, with no more than a spade and pick-axe to aid his endeavours. Every stone, large and small, that he excavated was placed in a basket which, when full, was strapped to his back and laboriously carried to the surface. It was back-breaking agony, and all for no reward. Then, one day, his pick shattered a rock which opened up into a huge cavern, empty and austere, like some vast underground cathedral. William thought that his luck had changed; the smooth walls gleamed with a metallic lustre in the pale light of the candle that he had affixed to his battered helmet. Eagerly he chipped at the rock face, but there was no gold to be had, just some sort of black mineral that would be good for nothing.
To no one’s surprise William died soon after, an exhausted and disappointed man.
While the islanders of Hopeless are maybe not the most industrious of folk, they certainly know an opportunity when they see one, and the abyss that William had thoughtfully supplied for them seemed an ideal place to deposit their rubbish. For fifty years William’s Pit, as it became known, was the main repository for the island’s waste. As you may imagine, fifty years’ accumulation of assorted trash would be smelly, to say the least, until someone had the bright idea that they could burn it.
For a while that strategy seemed to do the trick, but it became clear that, although both the smell and the rubbish had gone, the blaze still raged. It appears that William had inadvertently opened up a vast seam of anthracite which had ignited. The fire began half a century ago and it has yet to be extinguished. It is well known that raging beneath that part of the island is an inferno, where lethal clouds of gas swirl through the subterranean caverns. Luckily this is confined to a relatively small area which the islanders wisely avoid. Only the Night-Soil Man goes there occasionally. He finds it a convenient place to dispose of his burden.
The boys were found next morning, far away from home and thoroughly chastened by their experience. When the Reverend Davies questioned them, he was unsurprised that they thought that they had visited Hell’s Mouth and saw Satan himself. He was well aware of the existence of William’s Pit and that the Night-Soil Man frequented it. However, if they believed they had visited Hell and met its master, he did not disabuse them of the notion; such a belief, he thought, would only strengthen his authority
It was late on the following evening that Miss Calder stopped Rhys Cranham as he passed the orphanage. She told him what had happened, and how his timely appearance had frightened the boys away from danger.
The Night-Soil Man smiled, but chose to say nothing, accepting the compliment, although it was undeserved. He had not visited William’s Pit for weeks.
(New Squid and Teapot art by Amanda Frick. If you’d like to share a squid and teapot – art of photo – do let us know!)