The Wild Asses of the Devil


H. G. Wells

logo

First published in 1915.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:23.

To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Wild Asses of the Devil

There was once an Author who pursued fame and prosperity in a pleasant villa on the south coast of England. He wrote stories of an acceptable nature and rejoiced in a growing public esteem, carefully offending no one and seeking only to please. He had married under circumstances of qualified and tolerable romance a lady who wrote occasional but otherwise regular verse, he was the father of a little daughter, whose reported sayings added much to his popularity, and some of the very best people in the land asked him to dinner. He was a deputy-lieutenant and a friend of the Prime Minister, a literary knighthood was no remote possibility for him and even the Nobel Prize, given a sufficient longevity, was not altogether beyond his hopes. And this amount of prosperity had not betrayed him into any unEnglish pride. He remembered that manliness and simplicity which are expected from authors. He smoked pipes and not the excellent cigars he could have afforded. He kept his hair cut and never posed. He did not hold himself aloof from people of the inferior and less successful classes. He habitually travelled third class in order to study the characters he put into his delightful novels; he went for long walks and sat in inns, accosting people; he drew out his gardener. And though he worked steadily, he did not give up the care of his body, which threatened a certain plumpness and what is more to the point, a localised plumpness, not generally spread over the system but exaggerating the anterior equator. This expansion was his only care. He thought about fitness and played tennis, and every day, wet or fine, he went for at least an hour’s walk . . .

Yet this man, so representative of Edwardian literature — for it is in the reign of good King Edward the story begins — in spite of his enviable achievements and prospects, was doomed to the most exhausting and dubious adventures before his life came to its unhonoured end . . .

Because I have not told you everything about him. Sometimes — in the morning sometimes — he would be irritable and have quarrels with his shaving things, and there were extraordinary moods when it would seem to him that living quite beautifully in a pleasant villa and being well-off and famous, and writing books that were always good-humoured and grammatical and a little distinguished in an inoffensive way, was as boring and intolerable a life as any creature with a soul to be damned could possibly pursue. Which shows only that God in putting him together had not forgotten that viscus the liver which is usual on such occasions . . .

The winter at the seaside is less agreeable and more bracing than the summer, and there were days when this Author had almost to force himself through the wholesome, necessary routines of his life, when the south-west wind savaged his villa and roared in the chimneys and slapped its windows with gustsful of rain and promised to wet that Author thoroughly and exasperatingly down his neck and round his wrists and ankles directly he put his nose outside his door. And the grey waves he saw from his window came rolling inshore under the hurrying grey rain-bursts, line after line, to smash along the undercliff into vast feathering mountains of foam and sud and send a salt-tasting spindrift into his eyes. But manfully he would put on his puttees and his waterproof cape and his biggest brierwood pipe, and out he would go into the whurry-balloo of it all, knowing that so he would be all the brighter for his nice story-writing after tea.

On such a day he went out. He went out very resolutely along the seaside gardens of gravel and tamarisk and privet, resolved to oblige himself to go right past the harbour and up to the top of the east cliff before ever he turned his face back to the comforts of fire and wife and tea and buttered toast . . .

And somewhere, perhaps half a mile away from home, he became aware of a queer character trying to keep abreast of him.

His impression was of a very miserable black man in the greasy, blue-black garments of a stoker, a lascar probably from a steamship in the harbour, and going with a sort of lame hobble.

As he passed this individual the Author had a transitory thought of how much Authors don’t know in the world, how much, for instance, this shivering, cringing body might be hiding within itself, of inestimable value as ‘local colour’ if only one could get hold of it for ‘putting into’ one’s large acceptable novels. Why doesn’t one sometimes tap these sources? Kipling, for example, used to do so, with most successful results . . . And then the Author became aware that this enigma was hurrying to overtake him. He slackened his pace . . .

The creature wasn’t asking for a light; it was begging for a box of matches. And what was odd, in quite good English.

The Author surveyed the beggar and slapped his pockets. Never had he seen so miserable a face. It was by no means a prepossessing face, with its aquiline nose, its sloping brows, its dark, deep, bloodshot eyes much too close together, its V-shaped, dishonest mouth and drenched chin-tuft. And yet it was attractively animal and pitiful. The idea flashed suddenly into the Author’s head.. ‘Why not, instead of going on, thinking emptily, through this beastly weather — why not take this man back home now, to the warm, dry study, and give him a hot drink and something to smoke, and draw him out?

Get something technical and first-hand that would rather score off Kipling.

‘It’s damnably cold!’ he shouted, in a sort of hearty, forecastle voice.

‘It’s worse than that,’ said the strange stoker.

‘It’s a hell of a day!’ said the Author, more forcible than ever.

‘Don’t remind me of hell,’ said the stoker, in a voice of inappeasable regret.

The Author slapped his pockets again. ‘You’ve got an infernal cold. Look here, my man — confound it! would you like a hot grog . . .?’

The scene shifts to the Author’s study — a blazing coal fire, the stoker sitting dripping and steaming before it, with his feet inside the fender, while the Author fusses about the room, directing the preparation of hot drinks. The Author is acutely aware not only of the stoker but of himself. The stoker has probably never been in the home of an Author before; he is probably awestricken at the array of books, at the comfort, convenience, and efficiency of the home, at the pleasant personality entertaining him . . . Meanwhile the Author does not forget that the stoker is material, is ‘copy,’ is being watched, observed. So he poses and watches, until presently he forgets to pose in his astonishment at the thing he is observing. Because this stoker is rummier than a stoker ought to be —

He does not simply accept a hot drink; he informs his host just how hot the drink must be to satisfy him.

‘Isn’t there something you could put in it — something called red pepper? I’ve tasted that once or twice. It’s good. If you could put in a bit of red pepper.’

‘If you can stand that sort of thing?’

‘And if there isn’t much water, can’t you set light to the stuff? Or let me drink it boiling, out of a pannikin or something? Pepper and all.’

Wonderful fellows, these stokers! The Author went to the bell and asked for red pepper. And then as he came back to the fire he saw something that he instantly dismissed as an optical illusion, as a mirage effect of the clouds of steam his guest was disengaging. The stoker was sitting, all crouched up, as close over the fire as he could contrive; and he was holding his black hands, not to the fire but in the fire, holding them pressed flat against two red, glowing masses of coal . . . He glanced over his shoulder at the Author with a guilty start, and then instantly the Author perceived that the hands were five or six inches away from the coal.

Then came smoking. The Author produced one of his big cigars — for although a conscientious pipe-smoker himself he gave people cigars; and then, again struck by something odd, he went off into a corner of the room where a little oval mirror gave him a means of watching the stoker undetected. And this is what he saw.

He saw the stoker, after a furtive glance at him, deliberately turn the cigar round, place the lighted end in his mouth, inhale strongly, and blow a torrent of sparks and smoke out of his nose. His firelit face as he did this expressed a diabolical relief. Then very hastily he reversed the cigar again, and turned round to look at the Author. The Author turned slowly towards him.

‘You like that cigar?’ he asked, after one of those mutual pauses that break down a pretence.

‘It’s admirable.’

‘Why do you smoke it the other way round?’

The stoker perceived he was caught. ‘It’s a stokehole trick,’ he said. ‘Do you mind if I do it? I didn’t think you saw.’

‘Pray smoke just as you like,’ said the Author, and advanced to watch the operation.

It was exactly like the fire-eater at the village fair. The man stuck the burning cigar into his mouth and blew sparks out of his nostrils. ‘Ah!’ he said, with a note of genuine satisfaction. And then, with the cigar still burning in the corner of his mouth, he turned to the fire and began to rearrange the burning coals with his hands so as to pile up a great glowing mass. He picked up flaming and white-hot lumps as one might pick up lumps of sugar. The Author watched him, dumbfounded.

‘I say!’ he cried. ‘You stokers get a bit tough.’ The stoker dropped the glowing piece of coal in his hand. ‘I forgot,’ he said, and sat back a little.

‘Isn’t that a bit — extra?’ asked the Author, regarding him. ‘Isn’t that some sort of trick?’

‘We get so tough down there,’ said the stoker, and paused discreetly as the servant came in with the red pepper.

‘Now you can drink,’ said the Author, and set himself to mix a drink of a pungency that he would have considered murderous ten minutes before. When he had done, the stoker reached over and added more red pepper.

‘I don’t quite see how it is your hand doesn’t burn,’ said the Author as the stoker drank. The stoker shook his head over the uptilted glass.

‘Incombustible,’ he said, putting it down. ‘Could I have just a tiny drop more? Just brandy and pepper, if you don’t mind. Set alight. I don’t care for water except when it’s superheated steam.’

And as the Author poured out another stiff glass of this incandescent brew, the stoker put up his hand and scratched the matted black hair over his temple. Then instantly he desisted and sat looking wickedly at the Author, while the Author stared at him aghast. For at the corner of his square, high, narrow forehead, revealed for an instant by the thrusting back of the hair, a curious stumpy excrescence had been visible, and the top of his ear — he had a pointed top to his ear!

‘A-a-a-a-h!’ said the Author, with dilated eyes.

‘A-a-a-a-h!’ said the stoker, in hopeless distress.

‘But you aren’t —!’

‘I know — I know I’m not. I know . . . I’m a devil. A poor, lost, homeless devil.’

And suddenly, with a gesture of indescribable despair, the apparent stoker buried his face in his hands and burst into tears. ‘Only man who’s ever been decently kind to me,’ he sobbed. ‘And now — you’ll chuck me out again into the beastly wet and cold . . . Beautiful fire . . . Nice drink . . . Almost homelike . . . Just to torment me . . . Boo-ooh!’

And let it be recorded to the credit of our little Author, that he did overcome his momentary horror, that he did go quickly round the table, and that he patted that dirty stoker’s shoulder.

‘There!’ he said. ‘There! Don’t mind my rudeness. Have another nice drink. Have a hell of a drink. I won’t turn you out if you’re unhappy — on a day like this. Just have a mouthful of pepper, man, and pull yourself together.’

And suddenly the poor devil caught hold of his arm. ‘Nobody good to me,’ he sobbed. ‘Nobody good to me.’ And his tears ran down over the Author’s plump little hand — scalding tears.

All really wonderful things happen rather suddenly and without any great emphasis upon their wonderfulness, and this was no exception to the general rule. This Author went on comforting his devil as though this was nothing more than a chance encounter with an unhappy child, and the devil let his grief and discomfort have vent in a manner that seemed at the time as natural as anything could be. He was clearly a devil of feeble character and uncertain purpose, much broken down by harshness and cruelty, and it throws a curious light upon the general state of misconception with regard to matters diabolical that it came as a quite pitiful discovery to our Author that a devil could he unhappy and heart-broken. For a long time his most earnest and persistent questioning could gather nothing except that his guest was an exile from a land of great warmth and considerable entertainment, and it was only after considerable further applications of brandy and pepper that the sobbing confidences of the poor creature grew into the form of a coherent and understandable narrative.

And then it became apparent that this person was one of the very lowest types of infernal denizen, and that his róle in the dark realms of Dis had been that of watcher and minder of a herd of sinister beings hitherto unknown to our Author, the Devil’s Wild Asses, which pastured in a stretch of meadows near the Styx. They were, he gathered, unruly, dangerous, and enterprising beasts, amenable only to a certain formula of expletives, which instantly reduced them to obedience. These expletives the stoker-devil would not repeat; to do so except when actually addressing one of the Wild Asses would, he explained, involve torments of the most terrible description. The bare thought of them gave him a shivering fit. But he gave the Author to understand that to crack these curses as one drove the Wild Asses to and from their grazing on the Elysian fields was a by no means disagreeable amusement. The ass-herds would try who could crack the loudest until the welkin rang.

And speaking of these things, the poor creature gave a picture of diabolical life that impressed the Author as by no means unpleasant for anyone with a suitable constitution. It was like the Idylls of Theocritus done in fire; the devils drove their charges along burning lanes and sat gossiping in hedges of flames, rejoicing in the warm dry breezes (which it seems are rendered peculiarly bracing by the faint flavour of brimstone in the air), and watching the harpies and furies and witches circling in the perpetual afterglow of that inferior sky. And ever and again there would be holidays, and one would take one’s lunch and wander over the sulphur craters picking flowers of sulphur or fishing for the souls of usurers and publishers and house-agents and land-agents in the lakes of boiling pitch. It was good sport, for the usurers and publishers and house-agents and land-agents were always eager to be caught; they crowded round the hooks and fought violently for the bait, and protested vehemently and entertainingly against the Rules and Regulations that compelled their instant return to the lake of fire.

And sometimes when he was on holiday this particular devil would go through the saltpetre dunes, where the witches’ brooms grow and the blasted heath is in flower, to the landing-place of the ferry whence the Great Road runs through the shops and banks of the Via Dolorosa to the New Judgement Hall, and watch the crowds of damned arriving by the steam ferry-boats of the Consolidated Charon Company. This steam-boat-gazing seems about as popular down there as it is at Folkestone. Almost every day notable people arrive, and, as the devils are very well informed about terrestrial affairs — for of course all the earthly newspapers go straight to hell — whatever else could one expect? — they get ovations of an almost undergraduate intensity. At times you can bear their cheering or booing, as the case may be, right away on the pastures where the Wild Asses feed. And that had been this particular devil’s undoing.

He had always been interested in the career of the Rt. Hon. W. E. Gladstone . . .

He was minding the Wild Asses. He knew the risks. He knew the penalties. But when he heard the vast uproar, when he heard the eager voices in the lane of fire saying, ‘It’s Gladstone at last!’ when he saw how quietly and unsuspiciously the Wild Asses cropped their pasture, the temptation was too much. He slipped away. He saw the great Englishman landed after a slight struggle. He joined in the outcry of ‘Speech! Speech!’ He heard the first delicious promise of a Home Rule movement which should break the last feeble links of Celestial Control . . .

And meanwhile the Wild Asses escaped — according to the rules and the prophecies . . .

The little Author sat and listened to this tale of a wonder that never for a moment struck him as incredible. And outside his rain-lashed window the strung-out fishing smacks pitched and rolled on their way home to Folkestone harbour . . .

The Wild Asses escaped.

They got away to the world. And his superior officers took the poor herdsman and tried him and bullied him and passed this judgement upon him: that he must go to the earth and find the Wild Asses, and say to them that certain string of oaths that otherwise must never be repeated, and so control them and bring them back to hell. That — or else one pinch of salt on their tails. It did not matter which. One by one he must bring them back, driving them by spell and curse to the cattle-boat of the ferry. And until he had caught and brought them all back he might never return again to the warmth and comfort of his accustomed life. That was his sentence and punishment. And they put him into a shrapnel shell and fired him out among the stars, and when he had a little recovered he pulled himself together and made his way to the world.

But he never found his Wild Asses and after a little time he gave up trying.

He gave up trying because the Wild Asses, once they had got out of control, developed the most amazing gifts. They could, for instance, disguise themselves with any sort of human shape, and the only way in which they differed then from a normal human being was — according to the printed paper of instructions that had been given to their custodian when he was fired out — that ‘their general conduct remains that of a Wild Ass of the Devil.’

‘And what interpretation can we put upon that?’ he asked the listening Author.

And there was one night in the year — Walpurgis Night — when the Wild Asses became visibly great black wild asses and kicked up their hind legs and brayed. They had to. ‘But then, of course,’ said the devil, ‘they would take care to shut themselves up somewhere when they felt that coming on.’

Like most weak characters, the stoker-devil was intensely egotistical. He was anxious to dwell upon his own miseries and discomforts and difficulties and the general injustice of his treatment, and he was careless and casually indicative about the peculiarities of the Wild Asses, the matter which most excited and interested the Author. He bored on with his doleful story, and the Author had to interrupt with questions again and again in order to get any clear idea of the situation.

The devil’s main excuse for his nervelessness was his profound ignorance of human nature. ‘So far as I can see,’ he said, ‘they might all be Wild Asses. I tried it once —’

‘Tried what?’

‘The formula. You know.’

‘Yes?’

‘On a man named Sir Edward Carson.’

‘Well?’

’Ugh!‘ said the devil. ‘Punishment?’

‘Don’t speak of it. He was just a professional lawyer-politician who had lost his sense of values . . . How was I to know . . .? But our people certainly know how to hurt . . . ’

After that it would seem this poor devil desisted absolutely from any attempt to recover his lost charges. He just tried to live for the moment and make his earthly existence as tolerable as possible. It was clear he hated the world. He found it cold, wet, draughty . . . ‘I can’t understand why everybody insists upon living outside of it,’ he said. ‘If you went inside —’

He sought warmth and dryness. For a time he found a kind of contentment in charge of the upcast furnace of a mine, and then he was superseded by an electric-fan. While in this position he read a vivid account of the intense heat in the Red Sea, and he was struck by the idea that if he could get a job as stoker upon an Indian liner he might snatch some days of real happiness during that portion of the voyage. For some time his natural ineptitude prevented his realising this project, but at last, after some bitter experiences of homelessness during a London December, he had been able to ship on an Indiaward boat — only to get stranded in Folkestone in consequence of a propeller breakdown. And so here he was!

He paused. ‘But about these Wild Asses?’ said the Author.

The mournful, dark eyes looked at him hopelessly.

‘Mightn’t they do a lot of mischief?’ asked the Author.

‘They’ll do no end of mischief,’ said the despondent devil.

‘Ultimately you’ll catch it for that?’

‘Ugh!’ said the stoker, trying not to think of it. Now the spirit of romantic adventure slumbers in the most unexpected places, and I have already told you of our plump Author’s discontents. He had been like a smouldering bomb for some years. Now, he burst out. He suddenly became excited, energetic, stimulating, uplifting.

He stood over the drooping devil.

‘But my dear chap!’ he said. ‘You must pull yourself together. You must do better than this. These confounded brutes may be doing all sorts of mischief. While you — shirk. . .

And so on. Real ginger.

‘If I had someone to go with me. Someone who knew his way about.’

The Author took whisky in the excitement of the moment. He began to move very rapidly about his room and make short, sharp gestures. You know how this sort of emotion wells up at times. ‘We must work from some central place,’ said the Author. ‘To begin with, London perhaps.’

It was not two hours later that they started, this Author and this devil he had taken to himself, upon a mission. They went out in overcoats and warm underclothing — The Author gave the devil a thorough outfit, a double lot of Jaeger’s extra thick — and they were resolved to find the Wild Asses of the Devil and send them back to hell, or at least the Author was, in the shortest possible time. In the picture you will see him with a field-glass slung under his arm, the better to watch suspected cases; in his pocket, wrapped in oiled paper, is a lot of salt to use if by chance he finds a Wild Ass when the devil and his string of oaths is not at hand. So he started. And when he had caught and done for the Wild Asses, then the Author supposed that he would come back to his nice little villa and his nice little wife, and to his little daughter who said the amusing things, and to his popularity, his large gilt-edged popularity, and — except for an added prestige — be just exactly the man he had always been. Little knowing that whosoever takes unto himself a devil and goes out upon a quest, goes out upon a quest from which there is no returning —

Nevermore.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005