A Story for No Reason at All
Hi Folks. Since I really don't imagine people read things on a random site like this I thought it may be a great spot to put a short story I worked on over COVID. It's related to a play I wrote, Bulfunch's Mythology, but it stands on its own as well. Here it is.
Out Damn’d Pox
By: Trevor Copp
Fourth Draft, February 2022
As he did every evening, Mr. Edwards drained the kettle, doused the fire, swept the ashes, the hearth, the mantle. He barred the windows and stuffed the drafty cracks with oakum. He applied his make-up, pulled on his garter and hosiery, his kid gloves, and fixed the bustle of his dress. It was time to go to work.
Mr. Edwards’ walk usually didn’t get interesting until he hit Moss Park. By then he had about a dozen of the regulars in tow, with the women spaced out along the full length of the train of the dress, sharing the burden with Mrs. Denby with equal measures of pride. His mere presence caused a sensation with each encounter. The people he passed reviled him, adored him, spat at him, sang for him, helped carry his train so it wouldn’t get soiled, spilled sewage on his path so that it would, threw rotten fruit and fresh flowers - and whatever they hurled at him Mr. Edwards always repaid with interest. He never rushed, slowed, or stopped; not for traffic, proposals, serenades or attempted lynchings. Mr. Edwards walked.
Most commonly met were the eye rollers. While they had many sub classes - the chortlers, the scoffers, the cursers, the oglers, the turn away and walkers, it was the holy eye rollers that were the most likely to actually bar the path. Mr. Edwards found that issuing them a blessing in Latin, which they often took to be a dialect from among the deeper circles of hell, was enough to dispel them. The more sincerely he felt the blessing the better it worked.
There were the spitters. They never got past Mr. Edwards' entourage of youngsters – the Howard Street hawkers as they liked to call themselves, and not because they sold anything. One single expectoration towards Mr. Edwards set off a veritable waterfall onto the offender, minus the actual water.
There were the mockers. They fared least well of all. They were handled by Mr. Edwards personally. The bold:
“Lift that skirt a little more my lovely, I'd love to see what this Lady's got that the others are all missing.”
“More than you've ever seen and less than you'll ever know, good sir.”
“Here’s she that talks of the milk of human kindness. I’d like to milk a cup of that.”
“You wouldn’t know where to squeeze.”
“I’ll just keep trying until I get lucky.”
“Well then perhaps I can manage a teaspoon.”
“Hello good sir.”
“What are you?”
“Nothing unlike yourself m’lady. I like to eat, drink, and be Mary.”
This last quip won over the few undecided bystanders who joined to help constitute a fulsome entourage as they rounded the corner on Adelaide, just in front of the Royal Opera, the site of the inevitable main event: Mr. Edwards’ nightly clash with Thomas, the army recruitment officer. He was still largely sober at this hour, extolling every young man in sight to sign up and help rain blood and steel on the godless Boers, the godless Ottomans, or whoever was godless this week. His nightly showdowns with Mr. Edwards had swiftly become the stuff of legends.
“If it isn’t our darling Thomas employing his considerable charms to woo the brave souls of Toronto. Where do I sign up?” Mr. Edwards’ opening volley sounded.
Thomas halted at that, miffed that a particularly well turned string of profanity was left unresolved. But the silence from Mr. Edwards’ entourage had seized the entire courtyard; this call must not go unanswered. “Even the godless barbarians we fight deserve a better death then mortification at the sight of you. We need men, not misbegotten wretches like you.”
“And yet I’ve been in more woman’s pants today than you have in your entire life Thomas.” Voting with their guffaws, the crowd gave first blood to Mr. Edwards. And so it began: sabre versus scalpel, petard to pistol, shovel to shaving blade; Mr. Edwards without a drop of sweat while Thomas bled out publicly. “As I think about it,” Mr. Edwards added, “I would make a fine solider. Achilles dressed as ladies do. He couldn’t manage for long though. The heels killed him.”
“Achilles be damn’d. Clear the way of your mongrels here and I’ll knife you myself.”
“Last night you thrust and thrust and thrust and yet somehow, I survived.”[RK1]
The throbbing veins on Thomas’ face joined up to spell murder. “That’s it. I’m coming for you.”
“You said that last night too.”
Of course, the Howard Street boys had long since formed up the vanguard in front of Mr. Edwards, so when Thomas leapt they repelled him easily. Each repulsion redoubled the crowd’s laughter until Mr. Edward raised a finger for silence. “Thank you for your kind escort my dear companions. But the evening is young, and this has been but an amuse-bouche to the delights that await you all.”
With that, Mr. Edwards turned to the final aim of his peculiar journey from home: inviting the crowd into the Opera Royale to attend Macbeth, and more particularly to the satirical version of Macbeth that followed the tragedy, also called the ‘burlesque,’ in which he had the distinction of playing the immortal Lady Macbeth herself.
As he did, every evening.
There is a mad and unnamable thing that looms in every theatre, and on some unknowable nights it descends on the crowd and cracks the hardest souls open with laughter. And it was unanimously agreed by the theatre going public of the Toronto [RK2] of 1900 that this thing obeyed no one except Mr. Edwards.
The Opera Royale eventually quit bothering to perform[RK3] the tragedy of Macbeth in order to[RK4] allot more time to their burlesque sequel. It packed the rafters every night with patrons who cared about nothing and no one except to see what fresh bacchanalia the Lady of Ravens would extemporize that night. The extended train on his dress – after the ludicrous French fashion that had swept the city - had become famous in its own right. His stretched from one end of the stage to the other. By the end of his scenes that train was so entangled with the flats and furnishings that when he exited half the set exited with him, and the crowd roared. But it was his ‘out damn’d spot'that stole the show. He had some splotches or sores applied with makeup covering his arms, transforming his ‘out damn’d spot’ speech into a monumental invective against - the chicken pox. He rushed around the set clucking and flapping and pecking the pox from his hands; the crowd became insensate with laughter. When he managed to exit while towing off the entirety of Macbeth’s castle with him the crowd could bear it no more; they collapsed into the aisles and begged, with the little breath they could spare, for respite.
That evening, Mr. Edwards made his way home through wet-faced and even wet-pantsed admirers at the stage door back to the quiet familiarity of his apartment. He climbed the aching stairs and opened his creaking door, unlocked, as it was every night. Sprawled across his bed more drunk than alive, was Thomas, awaiting his return. As he did, every night.
‘Out damn’d spot’ became a sensation on the streets of Toronto with patrons offering triple the price of tickets on the street, sitting on each other’s laps two or three people deep, and breaking out in brawls at the box office each night when the house was pronounced full. Mr. Edwards’ escort to the theatre grew well past his ability to retain their names, so he simply referred to everyone as ‘lovelies.’ The Woman’s Christian Temperance society assembled a counter parade, jamming the street with a crush of bodies and calling on the grace of good Christians, local parliamentarians, and every armed Saint to defend the public from this “devil in a dress.”
Mr. Edwards’ single finger mesmerized even them. “The devil isn’t so bad,” he replied[RK5] . “I asked him to ‘unsex me here’ and look at what a job he did.” It took every drop of accessible saliva for the hawkers to clear the way and make it round to the Opera Royale again. That night as Mr. Edward rounded Adelaide for his nightly duel, Thomas launched his assault with the first unpredictable gesture he’d ever mustered: he didn’t show up. The week leading up to this had shown even his considerable reserve of vitriol draining. Some nights he barely even threw a tantrum. He’d grown paler and palsied, bloated and boney while uninspired threats came through his cracked lips more by force of habit than by actual conviction. Mr. Edwards held up a finger to a silence so complete that even the ravens had grown hoarse. Wordlessly he entered the stage door.
In some mysterious cosmic counterpoint Mr. Edwards’ performances had taken on a vitality that redoubled itself nightly, as though he had access to some otherworldly elixir that elevated his work to a plane of hysterical genius. One night he would spontaneously climb the proscenium, lay an egg, or wrap his train around his waist until he was as wide as tall and enter the stage by rolling. He would leap out onto the crowd and let them pass him all around and up to the mezzanine, shouting to Macbeth that not only was Birnam Wood on the move but that it was pinching his bottom; improvise diabolical incantations in perfect iambic pentameter which caused him to be possessed by the spirit of John A. Macdonald suffering from a severe bout of incontinence, and on and on. But not this night. On the night that Thomas failed to appear for their nightly bout, Mr. Edwards did something altogether unexpected[RK6] yet again - he performed the role of Lady Macbeth, thoughtfully, tenderly, and tragically; precisely as written.
The audience spent the first act waiting for the other shoe to drop. Surely this was the prelude to the legendary buffoonery for which they’d paid dearly. The second act, the third, the fourth – as the King, Banquo, and the rest of the God-fearing world fell prey to Macbeth’s vaulting ambition the Lady of Ravens offered only and all of the silk and steel to deliver the performance of a lifetime. The crowd’s pent-up anticipation transmuted from restlessness and disbelief into the broiling clouds and unnatural mists that enshrouded the world of Macbeth. As the witching hour came round in swept the actors playing the doctor and gentlewoman, describing Lady Macbeth’s state of somnambulant madness. Then the Lady herself came on for her final scene.
She entered without her gloves, her hands covered in red, poxy sores. In her dreamlike stupor she crossed to the doctor, took his glass vial, poured its contents over her face, and wiped it on her sleeve. The liquid flushed away her thick stage make-up, its colour running until all that remained on her face were the same horrific sores that covered her hands. She then reached across, unbuttoned her gown, and let it slip to the floor.
The syphilis was everywhere. Old sores sprouting new sores from her widow’s peak to her baby toes.[RK7] The crowd had only begun to digest this fresh horror when she dashed the doctor’s vial against the stage and rubbed its jagged edge up and down the length of her arms. The doctor was the first to scream, knowing that it was not stage blood that streamed to the floor. Within seconds his terror infected the auditorium, and his howls were taken up by every witness. Everyone except for the Lady herself; she made not a sound. She was just relieved that, at last, the itching had stopped.
In the pandemonium that ensued no one witnessed the Lady of Ravens become Mr. Edwards again, pack up his things, and slip out the stage door. Audience members came shrieking out of the theatre like bullets from [RK8] a munitions dump engulfed in flames. The terror of infection swept through the downtown as witnesses to the horror at the Opera Royale managed to relay the basic facts of what they’d witnessed to audiences who, in turn, panicked at the prospect of their infection at the hands of the witness. The streets devolved into a masterpiece of confusion, yet among the fleeing theatre goers, those fleeing the fleeing theatre goers, and everyone else panicking because that seemed to be the thing to do, Mr. Edwards walked. Back along Adelaide, all the way up Sherbourne, and over to his[t9] flat on Howard Street.
Mr. Edwards entered his[t10] [RK11] still quiet building, up his aching stairs, through his creaking unlocked door, and found Thomas in his room. Thomas’ sores, older than Mr. Edwards’, had long since blackened and infected. He stood on his bed, undid the noose tied with the Lady Macbeth stockings, and laid him down. Thomas’ fingers had long since lost the basic motor control required to tie an effective noose, he had been deeply grateful that Mr. Edwards could still manage the task. As he laid down beside Thomas, Mr. Edwards felt himself drifting away. They had been destroying each other every day and night since they met, and so the long quiet rest before them, though unfamiliar, was not unwelcome.