The young man intended to purchase my death and, presumably and in some manner carry it away so that I never would meet with it. Immortality, wealth, my beloved Jessica all rotated in kaleidoscopic vision before my eyes.
I had been given, of late, to walking through the streets of Edinburgh at night. When my studies were completed for the day, and provided that a delicate bank-balance or my solitary nature kept me from seeking the company of my fellow students in one of the many public houses, I would often walk from my digs up the Royal Mile to the castle, and return by way of the Grassmarket with a clear mind, prepared for sleep. The night air in Edinburgh is always bracing and barring the frequent fog, the view from the castle of the New Town, with its twinkling lights and Georgian symmetry seemed a healthy respite from the tortuous winds and architectural disarray of those territories in which I maintained my lodging.
Thus it was on an autumn’s evening like so many other autumn evenings that I found myself smoking a cigarette and looking out over the Botanic Gardens to Princes Street and beyond. As I stood in the evening stillness, high above the relatively minor bustle of the last few taxis taking home the last few fares of the night, I saw a fellow a few dozen yards away engaged in what apparently was an attempt to climb atop the wall that formed the parapet, dropping off on its nether side to a distant outcropping of rocks and pavement. I had heard, at various times, of suicides, mostly students, throwing themselves from this high wall, but my first inclination, judging by the fellow’s difficulty in mounting the five-foot barrier, was that he was simply one of the town’s many inebriates about to engage in a difficult and foolhardy venture.
I walked up to him just as he managed to pull himself on top of the wall, and as he sat there I saw that this fellow, obviously no student and probably no heart-broken lover, was in his late sixties, and possibly even seventy years of age. Concluding, therefore, that he was drunk, I tried to seize upon the best means of talking him down to safety without running the risk of a deadly accident. I approached him cautiously and spoke while still a good few yards away so as to not give him a start.
“Hello,” I called, somewhat unsurely, “Lovely night, isn’t it?”
“Beautiful night indeed,” my acquaintance replied over his shoulder, peering into the abyss like some gargoyle in training. “Beautiful night indeed.”
I was at a loss for the next line as there is very little to say to someone perched on the edge of a hundred foot drop unless one assumes a rather personal line of questioning.
“I’ll bet you can see a long way from up there,” I ventured.
“Aye, that I can,” he said, “Most of the way to the Forth, I reckon.”
This line of conversation was getting nowhere and in desperation I asked, “Don’t you think you should come down from up there? It’s dangerous—you could kill yourself.”
Still never turning and still peering down through the darkness to the rocks below, he nodded.
“Aye, that’s a distinct possibility,” he said, “but one that does not concern me in the least. Actually, I am here to kill myself.”
I pride myself on not being much of an alarmist, but I was taken aback. A hundred thoughts raced through my brain. Should I attempt to physically restrain him? Could I call for help in time? Finally, but in what was only a few seconds, I decided that this fellow was probably not drunk but almost certainly mad, although benign enough in conversation, and also that I had little chance of pulling him off of the wall, and must endeavor to talk him down. Cursing myself for having so little to say to a potential suicide, for the wrong word could almost certainly send him leaping to his death, I finally blurted out, “Good God man, you can’t do that—why, you must have something left to live for!”
He sighed. “Thanks a lot,” he said. “That’s what they all say. I don’t mean to sound impolite. I appreciate your attempt to stop me and all that, but when I tell you I have nothing left to live for I mean that I have given it careful consideration. After all, one should never do this sort of thing rashly.”
I found myself speechless. I had few ideas and little inspiration in the face of so calm an actor.
“You could always come for a drink,” I muttered, grasping at straws.
“What?” he asked. His voice sounded puzzled, no doubt at the pure lunacy of the suggestion.
“You could always come for a drink,” I repeated. “If you’re going to kill yourself you could always postpone the job until closing time. There’s quite a nice little pub just down the Mile.”
The man sat quietly and peered down from the rooftops. In a small voice he queried, “Are you buying?”
“Uh… why yes, of course.” I stammered.
“In that case,” said the man, swinging his legs over the wall and plopping onto the pavement like a cat, “lead on!”
I suppose that in the first place I was totally confused. Was I walking down the Royal Mile with a madman and a potential suicide? Or a madman prepared to do anything for a free drink? Or just a run-of-the-mill madman? I decided to steer a course for a pub where I could enlist the services of an off-duty policeman or the like should an occasion arise in which I needed to restrain him.
We walked along in silence for the few blocks to Brodie’s Tavern, and as we went in the door he turned to me and said, “Laddie,” looking me square in the eye, “You ken I am not doing this to cadge a drink from you? After last orders I’m going back to the castle and going to give it another go.”
“Mine’s a whiskey,” he added. “Make it a double.”
Stunned, I bought two large whiskeys and pulled up a seat at the corner table he had selected. He was about seventy-five or possibly even eighty years old, as I had first surmised, and stood about six feet two inches tall with a shock of white hair, and enormous bushy eyebrows, tiny dark eyes and virtually no chin at all. His rather sharp nose seemed to maintain a steady rate of decline from his lower lip to his collar. A thin man, he gave the impression of being nothing so much as an ostrich.
“And my name,” he said in a rather cheerful and somewhat high-pitched voice, “is Septimus Wise, a baker by trade, although I retired many years ago.”
I preferred to talk of anything but the suicide in hope that pleasant memories of places and friends would lure him from his depression—although he seemed anything but depressed to me.
With that, Septimus began to unfold his life’s story. He had been a student at Cambridge after having attended a rather obscure public school in Buckinghamshire. At the end of his second year, his father finding that the family business had failed utterly, shot himself, and Wise found himself unable to continue his studies. He wandered about for several months and found himself in Edinburgh. Then one day, he signed on as the baker’s assistant in a small shop in Leith walk.
The job suited him as well as could be expected. He worked all night, retiring to his digs in the wee hours of the morning to read until sleep overcame him. At the age of thirty-eight, a distant relative died leaving him a man of means and leisure. He quit his job and began to travel, keeping learned and interesting company. He seemed, from middle age on, to have met the most fascinating figures of his age. He had made the acquaintance of noted actresses, writers, statesmen, and gentry in varying degrees, and he held me spell-bound for nearly an hour with his anecdotes.
I was finally roused by the barman who, in no uncertain terms told us that we were no longer welcome. Indeed we were the last two customers in the pub. As I screwed up the courage to ask the barman to help me escort my friend home, so that he could not do the damage he seemed so set upon doing to himself, I turned to find he had vanished.
I dashed out into the street to see him a hundred yards ahead, walking rapidly and intently up to the castle. I ran after him and came within a few yards of him as he sprang up upon the parapet, turned to me, and with a twinkle in his eye said, “Thank you for that whiskey, young man,” and leapt into the darkness.
I heard his voice trail down into silence ending with a tiny thump. Horror stricken, I looked over the wall and could barely see, in the thin fog, the form of Septimus Wise sprawled obscenely across the rocks below. I wandered aimlessly down the Royal Mile feeling confused, nauseous, and more than a little helpless when I decided to head down to the Botanic Gardens to tell the police what I had seen. As I wandered past the pub and stumbled down the twisting road that lead eventually to Princess Street, I turned a corner and walked into a slightly disheveled and grinning Septimus Wise!
The next thing I remember is being awakened by the sounds of passing traffic and finding myself on an old leather couch with a few blankets thrown over me, a cup of coffee steaming on the table, and the television blaring the morning news.
Good morning I heard a voice call from what proved to be the kitchen, “Do you like porridge?”
And into the room, smiling and drying a breakfast bowl with a dirty tea towel, walked Septimus Wise. I didn’t know whether I should scream, run, or sink back into sleep. Perhaps I was dreaming or… perhaps I am mad? Nonetheless here he was, looking none the worse for wear.
“I’m rather sorry about last night,” he said, turning off the television. “I never intended for you to see me jump after the pubs had shut. Also I never thought I’d run into you on the way back. But it’s something I just had to try.” He looked sheepish. “You fainted and I had the taxi driver bring you back here as I didn’t know where you lived.”
I was still astonished. “Didn’t you… weren’t you… how could you…?” I stammered, little able to string words together.
Septimus Wise walked back to the kitchen, “First a cup of coffee and a bowl of porridge and then I guess I have some explaining to do.”
After the breakfast things were cleared away Septimus Wise lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. “I’ve told this story to one or two before you,” he mused, “but none have believed me so far.”
“To her?” I asked, pointing to a fading photograph over the mantelpiece.
“No, never to her,” he said, “She was my fiancée but we were never married. She died, you see. No, it was to a fellow much like yourself that worked on the railway up Queensferry way, I met him on the line one day. Every word I told him and every word that I’ve told you, for that matter, is true. It’s just that I haven’t told you the whole of it yet.” He paused to pour himself another cup of coffee.
“How old would you say that I am,” he inquired. I guessed about sixty-five to be on the safe side, but he could not have been more than five years older than that.
“Well,” he said, “I’ll be eighty-four years old next March. No, I don’t look my age right enough, but I’ve been looking about this old for just over twenty years, I reckon. I’ll always look like this I guess.
“A scholar like yourself,” he said, “has doubtless read Faust, and in virtually every version that I’ve come across the crux of the plot comes when poor old Faust has had his end of the bargain and the devil drops in for his just desserts. Well, I made a bargain like that, though not so stupid a one as old Faust did… or so I thought at the time.
“You’ll remember,” reminisced Wise, “about my years as a baker and the legacy I received? Well, had I remained a poor baker I reckon I’d have died a happy one; but this inheritance changed all that. Whereas once I was happy to work all night and read all day and repeat the routine year in and out, I found myself with little need of work and plenty of time on my hands at the age of thirty-eight. For eleven years I spent my money wisely, although due to the sheer quantity of the stuff, somewhat lavishly. I was constantly in the company of the brightest statesmen, the sharpest wits, and the prettiest ladies. Eventually I became engaged to an actress. Probably before your time,” he mused, “the name was Jessica Greenwood and no lovelier creature ever graced the stage. But she was a mere girl of twenty-three and I was nigh on to sixty! I knew my thoughts were premature but I began to resent my age. Oh, not so much the physical process but rather the end product of it all—death.
“Sure enough, Jessica thought young men were attractive. She said it and I believe she meant it. But I couldn’t even begin to convince myself to marry her, despite the fact that I couldn’t live without her, for fear of leaving her a young widow. Of course part of it was more selfish than that. I couldn’t stand not having a long life, even an eternity of long lives in her radiant company. This plagued me for a few months,” he said, “until this bargain was made that I referred to. I don’t mean to be melodramatic or obscure, young man. I don’t even know if I expect you to believe me.” At this point he stirred his now cold coffee pensively.
“No,” he began again, “it wasn’t some sort of road-show Mephistopheles with his red cape and feathered cap. I don’t even know if it was the devil himself. Sometimes I think it was Death… or someone who knew Death. It was at the Newmarket Races. I had taken Jessica and some friends of hers there after her play, ‘The Prisoner of Love,’ had closed at Sandler’s Wells. I left them at the table as I went off to place a last minute bet. When I reached the end of the queue the chap behind me pushed through. He suggested I put a guinea on a horse named Apocalypse to win.
“I laughed out loud. Apocalypse was running at twenty-eight to one odds or something similar. ‘All right old chap,’ the fellow said, ‘put a guinea on Apocalypse and I’ll refund your guinea if he loses.’ How could anyone turn down an offer like that? I decided to put a guinea on the old nag just to teach this young upstart something about cheekiness. As I started to hand the money across the counter, he pushed my hand away. ‘Give me a two guinea combination,’ he said to the woman. ‘Apocalypse in the second and Weltanschauung in the third, each to win.’ He thrust the coupon into the pocket of my waistcoat as he led me away. He muttered something about giving it to me as a gift.
“The chap looked to be about thirty years old or so, dressed in the finest Yorkshire tweeds with a clipped mustache. I told him that he had to be drunk to throw a guinea away in such a manner, but he denied it and proceeded to buy us each a gin and tonic. We sat down as the horses began to line up.
“‘You are Septimus Wise,’ he said, ‘aren’t you?’ I asked him if we had met before, knowing full well that we hadn’t. ‘I knew your father,’ the chap began again. I thought this rather unlikely since in all probability my father had died before this fellow had been born.
“The fellow explained that he meant to offer me a business deal, but only after my horse won the next race. I laughed and said that if that nag came within the first five runners that I’d reckon him to be psychic and wanting to buy my soul. The man grew strangely pensive. ‘No, not exactly your soul,’ he murmured.”
Septimus Wise seemed years away and his eyes filled with excitement and even now distant confusion as he continued his recitation of events. “The horses lined up,” he said, “and then took off and, believe it or not, Apocalypse, against incredible odds, led the pack. He pulled out by a nose and then by a length at the quarter, and by the half he was three lengths ahead of the pack. ‘What I want to buy,’ said my companion, ‘is not your soul. It is not even your life. What I want to buy is your death.’
“I dropped my drink and the glass shattered on the floor. My companion snapped his fingers and the drink was replaced by a waiter, in the wink of an eye. ‘How old do you think I am?’ The man asked. I guessed thirty though he couldn’t have been more than thirty-three and possibly as young as twenty-six or seven. ‘I am,’ he said, ‘eighty-three years old.’ The room was suddenly full of cheering people and I realized Apocalypse had finished five lengths ahead of the favorite.
“‘Don’t look so alarmed,’ said the young man, ‘you are almost sixty and resenting the ever-nearing presence of death. Your fiancée is young. What I am suggesting is that I shall purchase your death from you. I shall, of course, be relieving you of an unwanted burden. Congratulations on the race by the way. If Weltanschauung wins, and he will, you shall collect about ten thousand guineas. You can consider that a down payment if you like.’
“The young man repeated the offer and I had, indeed, heard him correctly. He intended to purchase my death and, presumably and in some manner carry it away so that I never would meet with it. My head was swimming. Immortality, wealth, my beloved Jessica all rotated in kaleidoscopic vision before my eyes. ‘Do you want to die?’ I asked incredulously,” said Septimus Wise. “‘Let us say that I am acting as a broker for another who wants to die, or rather, wants to purchase your death,’ said the man, ‘the matter is as simple as that.’ The horses were lining up for the next race. ‘Wait a minute,’ I gasped. ‘I’m not at all sure about this. What about Jessica? Surely you must make her the same offer so that we can continue to exist together throughout…’ The young man finished my sentence with a smile, ‘Eternity,’ he said. ‘Of course in this instance I can most certainly make her the same offer. However it is a contractual obligation that will be void if you ever ask if our, shall we say, representatives, have called upon her. If you do, the deal is off, so to speak.’ He smiled warmly, ‘But I rather doubt we shall have any of these problems whatsoever.’
“The race had begun,” Wise related, “and as if by magic, as it probably was, either (dark) magic or damnation, Weltanschaung led the pack from the starting gate. He was still leading at the quarter mark. My companion placed a contract before me. ‘Sign here,’ he said. ‘In blood?’ I asked. ‘Good gracious no!’ he laughed, ‘India ink is perfectly acceptable.’ As I put pen to paper I was seized with a terrible and unnamed fear. I felt peril yet could not quite rationally isolate it. ‘No,’ I cried, ‘I cannot do it! I fear I am selling my soul.’ ‘Nonsense,’ the man replied, ‘but if you have lost interest in the warmth of the day in favor of the cold of the grave…?’ His comment cut through me like a knife. He rapped his hand on the table and gestures toward the track. I turned to see the favorite, with an unexplainable burst of speed, shoot ahead of Weltanschaung, who had been three lengths in the lead.
“The young man continued as I watched the race, ‘You have time to consider,’ he said, ‘about twenty seconds judging by the speed of the horses.’ ‘All right, all right,’ I cried as I signed the contract. I turned to see the favorite miss a stride and fall as Weltanschaung surged ahead and won the race. As the horse crossed the finish line I saw my companion disappear into the crowd.
“Exhausted and confused, I walked back to where Jessica and my friends were sitting,” said Wise, “and produced the ticket stub. My friends were delighted and surprised, knowing the effect that a life in Scotland has on ones tendency to make guinea bets on long-shots. Jessica just smiled the smile of a soon-to-be-bride. Unfortunately, about a month before we were to be married we were in an automobile accident. The car was flattened by a lorry on a narrow country road. I should have been killed, but was thrown free. It was in the bargain, you see.”
The old man paused and poked the ashtray with his fingertip. “Jessica was killed. I guess she turned down the offer of immortality after all. And now I know that I should have too. I was shocked by her death and knew that I had been thrown clear against all odds. I knew that the bargain was no dream, for I still had the deposit books showing the entry for a bet that I never would have made, then or now.
“I brooded for months after the funeral,” he said, “half doubting yet somehow knowing that I was damned, as it were, to immortality. I ceased to attend parties and went days without eating food or receiving visitors. I existed for two years in that depression having, by the way, several near fatal accidents from which, each time, I was miraculously rescued. I lingered in despondency until I conceived upon the idea of suicide. Perhaps suicide was the one escape clause. As a child at Christmas rushing to open presents, I dashed to my study and pulled from its drawer my old service revolver. Without hesitating, I laughed as a madman as I put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger.”
Septimus Wise paused again. “No,” he said quietly, “it didn’t misfire but somehow although the gun was held to my head and I suffered slight powder burns, the bullet implanted itself in my wall without ever drawing a drop of blood. It passed right through me somehow….”
He sat for a few moments, hunched over. “I haven’t given up though. I’ve tried knives, poison. I’ve thrown myself in front of trains—that was where I met the other chap to whom I told this tale. But these plans never work. Oh, the poison might make me sick, but only for a day or so. The knives might cut my skin, but never much blood.
“So this is how you came to see me throw myself from the castle parapet last night. I thought that if I spread myself over the rocks….” I involuntarily winced. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I have been at it so long that I get rather callous. I thought that if I could do myself enough damage to make bodily functions impossible that I might have no alternative but death. I guess I was wrong. I remember the fall and the moment before impact but I blacked out when I hit. It was wonderful. There was no feeling at all; not even the consciousness of dreaming when one is asleep. Death must be something like that,” he mused, smiling. “Alas, it only lasted a moment. I found myself conscious and lying on the rocks. I admit suicide is rough on one’s suits.” He said, casting a glance over a few small tears in his jacket sleeve.
I was, perhaps surprisingly, less astounded by his tale than I should have been, given the curious events that had transpired over the last few hours. I spent the morning at his flat listening to him recount, sometimes in gruesome detail, his attempts at nullifying his hideous contract. It is only after he explained his final plan to seek repose and asked my assistance, and I had agreed that I began to seriously doubt my sanity. He explained that this was his last possible idea, and it seemed to me a sound one. I was to be in no danger of incrimination as he had written, on dozens of foolscap pages in his tiny, crabbed script, his wretched tale. If he were, as he put it, lucky enough to succeed in killing himself, that document would save me from any fear of the law. We left the manuscript on the mantelpiece. I have since burned it.
Throughout the course of his macabre experiments he noted that those methods of suicide that normally prevent the body from functioning—such as poison, stab wounds—did not produce the desired effect. Even attempts to explode his body left him either blown clear of the destruction or merely scorched. Thus, he reasoned, if internal devices of death did not work and explosives or combustibles failed that the only remaining avenue of escape lay through implosion.
A man who has few interests in life beyond the engineering of his own demise has opened to him many avenues of study. Septimus Wise explained to me, in intricate detail, theories of disintegration by freezing to absolute zero or accelerating motion to the speed of light. But those panaceas lay to the future and the future was the one price too great for him to pay. His studies were not linked to the frontiers of science either. He proved an authority on arcane incunabula and Faustian lore. It was on that account that he remained convinced that there was always an escape clause in the contracts of the damned.
Thus it was just as evening was settling on the rooftops of Edinburgh that we set out in his old car, with the perennial rain drizzling down, to the reaches that lay to the west of the city. Our destination was a junkyard, a mortuary stacked with the rusting bodies of decayed automobiles.
In time, we approached it, and he drove through the gate. No one bothered to lock the premises, for these rusting juggernauts were of no use to anyone save the scrap merchant.
The chrome and carburetors and other sundry bits and pieces had long since been sold off and the corpses remained, stacked into minarets and pillars and piles like some modern Angkor Wat, waiting to be crushed into small cubes of compressed steel.
Yes, in that great machine, the steel that destroys steel, lay the genius and the horror of his plan. To be compressed and crushed amongst the steel until no atom of his being held contact with another. To be imploded, compacted, and squashed out of a miserable existence.
The line of cars waiting to be crushed extended to the great machine and, to his pleasure, one was already in the great jaws, uncompacted. “This,” he muttered, “spares us the trouble of operating the crane and giant magnet.” Septimus Wise disappeared into a small shed and threw a few switches. At once the electric dynamos leapt into action, droning like so many great bees.
“All you need to do,” he said, “is push that yellow button once I have gotten inside.” He climbed atop the machine and turned to me. “Thanks for the whiskey, young man and… well, just thanks,” he said, and disappeared into the iron jaws. A moment passed in silence then I heard his muffled cry. “Now. Push it now!”
Somehow I managed to push that button. The great walls slowly, almost trance-like, surged forward on all sides, the sounds of breaking glass and grinding steel wracked my ear-drums. For a second it sounded, through the cacophony of destruction, as though someone had screamed, but a scream was unlikely to be heard over the tortured cries of the metal.
After a few moments the jaws released and a great brick of steel was excreted from the machine onto the rollers that carried it to the lorries. I switched off the machinery and went to survey the effect. The steel block was rectangular and about two yards long and about one and a half yards in height and breadth. Like the others beside it, it was a riotous blend of colors from the various paints and metals compacted together. It was curious that of all the colors present the only one rendered conspicuous in its absence was the scarlet of blood.
I thought I heard a moan piercing the evening sky that I attributed to the wind whistling through the rusting wrecks. As I walked around the rectangle of steel I saw the grey of the chassis, the blue of the body, and the silver of chrome melt away into the very flat white of a bushy eyebrow with a grey eye beneath it, distorted, as in a Picasso, yet as flat as a painting on an Egyptian tomb. The grey eye merged into fragments of hair and flesh, and a tear rolled from its corner and down the block of steel.
I will spare you the agony of wondering. Septimus Wise, the most unwise man I ever knew, or hope to know, whose atoms now lay scattered in a million bits, really could not die. The horror of the vision that tearful eye sent me running as fast as I ever have, back to my quarters. But, after a few sleepless hours, I knew I had to return to the junkyard.
Having been fool enough to go along with his plan to defy the dark spirit with whom he had so casually made such a lethal bargain, I felt that I owed him—what physical thing remained, and the spirit that hovered around it—respite. In shock and horror I beseeched the crew there the next day to cut the compressed car and man in half. I paid them more than I could afford to drive the block of steel containing intermittent spots of flesh, fingernails, nostrils, and the above-mentioned eye that could still cry, to my rooms.
I was, in every possible way, exhausted. I put the crying rectangle of steel on the floor in the living room, as far from my bed as possible, and fell asleep.
You can be sure that I had nightmares. From that day to this I have never slept uninterrupted by them. That first night Mr. Wise was good enough to remain silent until morning. In reality, his care takes little effort. He does not eat or drink. He ‘needs’ nothing; nothing, that is, save companionship, and not so much of that. And yet his presence imposes heavy costs.
I curse my soft nature. I, who consider myself both a rationalist and a believer in Christ, fell for the sad story of a man who had fecklessly thrown in with the devil himself, selling death, which is the only end of human life, so cheaply. Wise sold his death, and life, to Satan on a whim. And I went along with the game, expecting that a clever physical ploy—an automobile crusher—would defeat the author of all evil.
I have paid a price myself, of course. You can imagine that my inability to throw the box of metal that is Septimus Wise away—out of guilt and a burdensome, perhaps misplaced sympathy—has made it difficult to conduct normal relationships of the sort that lead to marital life and family. What sane woman would tolerate a man who houses a deathless spirit in his parlor? My career has faltered too. Who can apply himself thoroughly to the affairs of this world, when his home is a stage for the affairs of the other world?
I curse the night I declined to spend a few pounds dining with friends, and wound up trying to rescue a man far beyond salvation.
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