"And Satan trembles when he sees The weakest saint upon his knees." Willian Cowper
Sir Nicholas Stain was an aristocrat, an academic and amateur Lothario, in that order. He hailed from an ancient Anglo-Saxon family found in the English counties of Middlesex and Surrey. He was forever keen to tell any poor soul forced to listen that his family name appeared in the Doomsday Book, albeit under the slightly different spelling of Stanes.
“But that’s because ‘I’ wasn’t born yet,” he would quip, misinterpreting the confusion he saw on their faces with something akin to awe.
Sir Nicholas wasn’t much of a scholar as a boy boarding at Charterhouse School and he found the rugby awfully rough. He did possess a knack for Religious Education and in earlier times his parents might have guided him towards a clerical career. But his father was a militant atheist, having once read the first three chapters of the latest bestseller by Richard Dawkins, and would not hear of his only son demeaning himself with such an occupation. So, having failed selection to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, young Nicholas decided to do what many mediocre twenty-somethings have done since the modern age began – he lived at home and took some further university courses part-time. Twenty years later, he held a PhD, a lectureship at a newly promoted polytechnic, and a handful of published papers in academic journals no one read.
“They’re not obscure. They’re specialist,” he would tell others, but mostly himself.
The idea for contacting the devil was not his own, like so much else in his life. It came from one of his students, a plump goth girl whose too little clothes directly related to her overabundance of visible skin. Old Nick – as his students called him – was trying to bed her. He had several strategies to achieve this kind of intimacy with his female students. One was to play up his blue blood but counteract it with a ‘call me Nick’ mateyness that may well have worked a century ago. Another was to talk like an extreme sceptic when all traditional forms of religion were under discussion, especially if they were related to Christianity, but to take seriously every faddish, farcical or fanatical notion his class happened across.
“Is it possible to believe in the devil but not in God? Because that’s where I think I’m at right now,” said Scarlet (real name Sybil Camillia Duvall-Hall. Father – full-time barrister. Mother – part-time gin fiend).
Sir Nicholas gazed at her but not in the face.
“Well, Scarlet, before those nasty Christians came along and spoiled everything, the devil was a god, the god Pan to be precise, a Greek deity of flocks and fertility,” said Nicholas, lingering over that last word with a smirk. “Much of the later Christain iconography for the devil – goat legs, head horns – is based on him, only with a pitchfork replacing his crook.”
The demons that hovered over the head of Sir Nicholas laughed at this description of themselves because they looked nothing like that. They laughed hard but without mirth. When they appeared to men, they often disguised themselves as servants of righteousness. In this, they followed the lead of their master, the Great Red Dragon, who masqueraded as an angel of light. The demons often laughed at the nonsense spoken by Sir Nicholas. But their eyes never left him. And they were full of eyes, front and behind.
The demons knew Sir Nicholas well. They knew that underneath that urbane air was a fragile little child longing for a meaning that his father had taken away. He had tried to find this meaning in secular pursuits like his father. But as with father, so with son, these pursuits started with science but ended with skirts, lots of skirts, the shorter and younger the better. Now Old Nick employed his father’s scepticism only against Christianity but opened his mind more and more to the occult.
“Sounds like he’d be great at a party,” said Scarlet.
“Depends on the party,” said Nicholas with a wiggle of his eyebrows, much to his students’ amusement, although the distinction between laughing with and laughing at was fuzzy.
As the class filtered out, the idea Nicholas popped into Sir Nick’s head, seemingly from nowhere, that he should host a party of his own. It would be a very special party, a very select party, a party that only consisted of two people – him and the Prince of Darkness. He was only a knight of the realm so meeting the royalty of hell would be a step up. If it didn’t work it, no great loss. He’d have a new experience and maybe some material for a paper. But if it did, he judged that a full professorship at Oxbridge would be a fair exchange for his immortal soul.
Of course, the idea did not come from nowhere but from the demons who were charged with blinding his mind and binding him to their service. Sir Nicholas held little worth to them in himself – they and their comrades despised all men equally – but his position of power over students made him a valuable asset in their holy war against heaven. When the time was right, they would clear his way to a position of higher prestige. But before they raised his ego higher, it was usual policy to drag his soul lower. Human criminals called this sort of tactic an insurance policy; devils called it a covenant with death.
As Sir Nick drove back to his countryside manor for the weekend, a definite plan formed in his brain. The attic on the third floor was probably the best place for such a rite. It held some shelves with old books and served as a place to keep other items for general storage. It was out of the way and ensured privacy, which was good. And it had an atmospheric circular window looking up to the skyline. At night, if the clouds allowed it, Nicholas sometimes watched the stars from there and it made him feel all wizardly. He even bought and brought up a telescope, which he had used on at least two occasions.
But there was a problem. Sir Nicholas hadn’t been up in the attic for some time now and it was probably in need of a good cleaning. A few cobwebs here and there would help with atmosphere, yes, but too much dust would set off one of his allergies. So, he made a mental note to contact Mrs Gonu. She was a little local lady who came to clean his house every once a while, when he could afford it. Nicholas liked her because she was easy to pay and easier to ignore. As she scuttled about cleaning his house and ironing his clothes without a complaint, he found it ridiculously painless not to regard her at all.
This was a mistake. For Angela Gonu was not what she seemed. On the outside, she was extremely ordinary, extremely forgettable. It was a simple task to look past her, to underestimate her. In fact, she underestimated herself. What she was, in truth, was barely believable but nevertheless certain. For Angela Gonu was nothing less than the legally adopted daughter of the Ancient of Days, the Most High, He Who Lives Forever, the Man of War, the Jealous and Avenging One, the Consuming Fire, the Inhibitor of Eternity, the First and Last, He Who Is – Yahweh of Hosts. And she grew into the likeness of her father more and more with each passing day, until finally he would come down for her at death and they would dwell together in the garden-city of Zion forever.
To make matters worse for Nicholas and his infernal associates, as Mrs Gonu cleaned, she prayed. While she was on her knees scrubbing, her prayers reached the right hand of the throne of the thrice Holy One, before whom even the burning, six-winged seraphs hid their faces in fear. Her words whispered directly into her father’s ears, and he was swift to act on her petitions, one way or the other, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm that none could thwart. Angela didn’t think herself a powerful person or an overcomer. The thought of such language applied to her would make her laugh out loud. But as she worked for her employers, mighty angels who excel in strength, envoys from her father, worked for her.
Sir Nicholas, even with all his social sophistication and academic qualifications and occult knowledge, knew none of these things. He didn’t even suspect them. All he knew was that he needed that funny little lady to come and clean his house tomorrow, especially that attic on the third floor. Then, tomorrow night, he would draw a diagram on the wooden floor (in paint that was easy to wash away and left no marks), recite words from an ancient text that he couldn’t properly pronounce, prick his thumb with a needle, and see what would manifest itself.
The demons that were guiding his path didn’t care one whit about the details of the symbols or words of the ritual. These humans could dream up whatever mumbo-jumbo they pleased. It was their intention that mattered, the dedication, the commitment. They must give themselves over, they must sell themselves to do evil in the sight of Yahweh and provoke him to anger. They must trespass more and more, and multiply their guilt. They most seduce those around them to do the same, leading others astray to do even more evil than before. Only then, with this, the demons are satisfied.
As soon as he arrived back home, Sir Nicholas slid into his favourite house slippers. (They were embroidered with the design of the Stain family crest, made from soft black velvet, with satin quilted linings, and hard leather heels.) He then looked up the number of Mrs Gonu on the Samsung Galaxy he got free from work and called her on his replica antique house home handset. He had to wait almost ten seconds before she finally picked up. His buttock muscles started to clench with frustration. The sheer hubris of her!
“Hello?” said Mrs Gonu.
“This is Sir Nicholas Stain here, Mrs Gonu,” he said, leaving little specks of spit on his transmitter. “I need you to clean my house tomorrow, including the attic. You can come from two in the afternoon but I need you out before supper time. Alright?”
“Sorry, Sir Nicholas, but I can’t do that,” said Mrs Gonu. “Saturday is my day off. And I’m going out with Mr Gonu to visit friends. But I can come Monday, first thing.”
“I don’t need it done for Monday. Otherwise, I’d have said Monday. I need it done by tomorrow night,” said Sir Nicholas. He knew better than to push his ritual to Sunday because he knew Mrs Gonu would never work on the Sabbath, what with all her ridiculous church meetings and roast dinners, no doubt mopping the brows of the poor and unfortunate in between times.
“The best I can do is come later on in Saturday, Sir Nicholas. After we’ve come back and had our tea,” said Mr Gonu.
“And what time would that be, pray tell?” said Sir Nicholas.
“About seven thirty or eight o’clock,” said Mrs Gonu.
Sir Nicholas did a quick calculation. She could start in the attic and have that cleaned first. Even if it took her two hours, he would have it to himself before midnight. After she was done with it, he could send her downstairs to do some cleaning work on the ground floor rooms while be conducted his business upstairs, in a peaceful and moderately dust-free state.
“Very well, very well, that will have to do,” said Sir Nicholas. “I’ll see you tomorrow as early in the evening as you can make it. Goodnight!”
Sir Nicholas spent Saturday morning preparing for his dark ritual. After a breakfast of microwaved Kedgeree and Smoky Earl Grey, he drove to his local DIY store to acquire the necessities. Sir Nicholas greatly enjoyed mixing with the hoi polloi once or twice each year. It reminded him of visiting the zoo as a child. But walking through the store did allow him to feel manly and proletariat, an experience every good Marxist academic should allow themselves now and then. The feeling wore off well before the fifteen minutes it took Sir Nicholas to purchase the red paint and the candles he needed.
Next, Sir Nicholas drove to his local butcher, where he asked the man behind the counter if he could buy some animal blood. A sprinkling of some sort of blood over the room would add a certain seriousness, he reasoned. The butcher looked at him if as if he was mad but suggested he might want to try the freezer section at an Asian market or a halal shop. Instead, Sir Nicholas bought some black pudding, somewhat hazy about how he would use it but with the certainty that he could eat it if all else failed.
By the time he arrived back home, washed, had something to eat, enjoyed his afternoon nap, washed again, waded through the weekend Guardian, had something more to eat, and took in the air, it was nearly seven o’clock. Mrs Gonu arrived shortly after the hour in a car Sir Nicholas always thought looked too new and clean and large for someone of her station to justify driving. It was certainly better than his. As punishment, he let her carry all her own equipment up the stairs to the third floor and then to the attic above.
“Spend as much time as you need to up there,” said Sir Nicholas to Mrs Gonu. “I’m going to throw a little party in it later on so I need it ready.”
Mrs Gonu wondered why he would host a party up in a dusty old attic when the rest of house lay empty, and what Sir Nicholas meant by ‘later’, but she nodded and said nothing. No doubt it was some upper-class thing that she wouldn’t understand anyway, and would prefer not to know.
The attic was cold and dark but larger than she expected. The electric lights didn’t add much brightness to the room but at least they allowed her to see what was in it. What Mrs Gonu saw was shelves with books, some leatherbound but mostly hardbacks and journals. There was an old desk set below a round window, with a few knick-knacks and ornaments placed on top of it. She also saw a telescope on a tripod stand, a dark wood floor lamp base, some heavy looking chests, a few chairs, black and white pictures on the wall, out-of-date suitcases, two rusty swords, and a musket in the corner. These were packed around the edges of the attic. There was a large space on the floor at the centre, empty of everything except a tattered red rug.
Under normal circumstances – with full daylight and weekday energy – Mrs Gonu could have cleaned the place in about an hour. But she was tired after her nice day out and the approaching gloom made it difficult to see. And what you can’t see, you can’t clean, as her mother always said. Since the attic was very out of the way, it took her longer to carry up the vacuum cleaner, extension reels and the buckets of warm water than usual. Also, the attic was very dusty. Sir Nick, she noted, didn’t help with any of this. Not once.
Most others might have felt anger at Sir Nicholas for calling at the weekend, for making demands, and for refusing to help. But Mrs Gonu didn’t feel anger. She felt sorry for him, stuck in this big, rotting house by himself, all alone. No Lady Nicholas, no children, no joy. It was clear to her that he wasn’t well in the head, with nothing but books and stuffed badger heads hanging on the wall to keep him company. Poor soul! She had tried to strike up conversations with him in the past but so far without much success. But she would persevere.
“I’m on my knees anyway to clean,” she said to herself, “So, I might as well say a few prayers for him and his while I’m down here.”
The demons that haunted Sir Nicholas’ house, and that wanted to haunt his soul, suddenly froze as Mrs Gonu started to whisper a quick invocation while she worked. There were nine of them. Three looked like frogs. They performed lying wonders, and would go out to the kings of the earth and to the whole world, to gather them for battle against that great day. Three looked like owls. They howled when they haunted a house and gorged themselves on the flesh of dead bodies. Three looked like wild goats. They leaped about and danced in the ruins, but always on the left side, never the right.
At length, they whispered to each other.
“She is one of the overcomers,” said the first. “She is speaking to…him. She is invoking the Name. I feel it in the gnashing of my teeth.”
“Now he will surely send one of the mighty ones or the burning ones to resist us,” said the second.
“Worse! He might come himself! He will send Him-of-the-Flaming-Eyes to cast us out of this region and into the Abyss. He will come and torment us before the appointed time,” said the third.
“Then we must attack now!” said the fourth. “We will lay hold of seven other spirits more wicked than ourselves, enter into him, and take up residence there.”
“Too late, too late,” said the fifth. “The woman has put a protective shield and a wall around them. She need not fear the terror by night nor the arrows that fly by day, the pestilence that stalks in darkness nor the destruction that wastes at noon.”
“We can stay here no longer. We must fear and fly and seek permission to enter elsewhere,” said the sixth.
“The Dragon will not be pleased. He has spent much labour on this task, going to and fro in this place, walking up and down on it. He is in great wrath because he knows his time is short,” said the seventh.
“We can stand the sweep and sting of his tail,” said the eighth. “But we cannot hide from the face of Him who sits on the throne. From that face earth and heaven flee away, till there is no place left to hide.”
“Then let us depart, for a season. Our foothold here is gone, and our devices have failed. There is no place for us anymore,” said the ninth.
Then the nine unclean spirits came out of the house, and passed though arid places, seeking rest, but finding none.
Unlike them, Mrs Gonu allowed herself a small moment of rest when she had swept the attic clean and put it in order. It still seemed a little empty to her, certainly too empty for any sort of party. It looked like a bare room with a few trinkets, not a home for living people. Only one thing in it brought some light to her face. The studied it closely.
Sir Nicholas wasn’t waiting for Mrs Gonu at the bottom of the stairs when she descended. This surprised her. Mrs Gonu had heard him pacing the corridor and muttering to himself when she started her task. She was sure Sir Nicholas would still be there, waiting, glaring at his watch and making that clicking sound with his tongue. But the only click she heard now was from a boiled kettle far away in the kitchen below.
“Yes, a cup of tea would be nice before I go on,” thought Mrs Gonu.
When she reached the kitchen, what he saw shocked Mrs Gonu to the depths of her soul.
As if reading her thoughts, Sir Nicholas had made a pot of tea himself. But that wasn’t what shocked Mrs Gonu. What shocked Mrs Gonu was the two cups sitting on tabletop. In all her years of working for him, Sir Nicholas had never deigned to help her in any way, never mind make something for her.
“You’ve been working away like a trojan, Mrs Gonu,” said Sir Nicholas. “Share a cup of tea with me.”
He then poured her tea with his own hand. All Mrs Gonu could do was obey and swallow a large gulp of tea to help her recover. She was too startled to follow his lead and not put in any milk or sugar. But he didn’t show any signs of minding this hideous breach of etiquette.
They sat there in silence for a few moments as the tea worked its magic.
“So, what did you think of my little upstairs den?” said Sir Nicholas at length.
All Mrs Gonu could think of was dens of lions and dens of thieves, and she wondered which one she currently inhabited. It took her a few seconds and few more mouthfuls to tea to realise he was talking about the attic.
“It’s cosy,” said Mrs Gonu, struggling to find the right word without lying. “Intimate. Personal to you.”
This last comment piqued the interest of Sir Nicholas despite himself. It was the first time something said by Mrs Gonu has achieved such prestige.
“What do you mean, ‘personal to me’?” he asked.
“I suppose I’m talking about the pictures, mainly,” said Mrs Gonu. “They look like family portraits.”
“Oh. Yes. I’d almost forgotten about those,” said Sir Nicholas.
“Well, they’re very nice,” said Mrs Gonu. “I noticed one picture in particular. It was a man wearing a collar, standing beside a younger man. And the younger man had a baby in his arms.”
“That baby was me. The man was my father. And the clergyman was my grandfather. A good man, by all accounts,” said Sir Nicholas. “A sort of a modern-day saint, a holy hero, if there is such a thing,” said Sir Nicholas.
As he said this last sentence, it seemed that Sir Nicholas spoke to himself more than Mrs Gonu. The words he expressed contained ideas that were new to him. He surprised himself with how they sounded out loud.
“Anyway, soon after that picture was taken, my grandfather got himself killed on some foreign mission field. Malaria. My father never forgave the church for that. It made him an angry man.”
“Sounds like a noble way to die. Doing something you believe in. Brave. Like a knight,” said Mrs Gonu.
Sir Nicholas looked down on her, stunned. He’d never thought of it like that before.
“Well, he was a knight,” he said. “A knight of the realm.”
“So are you, Sir Nicholas,” said Mrs Gonu.
“I suppose I am,” he replied. “I am at that.”
After they finished their tea and chatted some more, Sir Nicholas told Mrs Gonu to go home. The sky was rapidly losing its light and he didn’t like the thought of her driving around in the dark. So, he helped her out with all her cleaning gear and waved her goodnight.
After she was gone, Sir Nicholas went back up to the attic. It looked like a different room, now that it was all cleaned up. Sir Nicholas was impressed at the woman and her work. The thought of painting a pentagram on the wooden floor and trying to conjure up the devil suddenly seemed absurd. Where did such a silly idea come from in the first place? How preposterous it was, how disturbing!
He walked over to the picture Mrs Gonu had mentioned and stared it at for a long time. Then he took it off the wall and sat himself behind the desk, which was now clear of everything except an old, dark book. He propped the picture up on the desk with the help of a lampstand and opened the book’s inside cover.
‘To my grandson Nicholas, from your loving grandpa. We may never again meet in this life. But I hope we shall in the next. A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children. You’ll have a grand inheritance. But the greatest part of it is this.’
When Sir Nicholas started to read from the old, dark book, as if for the first time, the demons that used to inhabit that room knew it and started to tremble in terror, even though they were now far away. But it was not the thought of standing before their dread dragon-lord that made them shudder so. It was the image of that little human lady, bent down, with her knees on the floor, and her lips whispering such words of power that even their master could not resist. And the more they thought of her, the further and quicker they fled.