Reading in Bed

Enjoy this reprint from Joan Aiken’s short story collection The Monkey’s Wedding: and Other Stories  from Small Beer Press.


Reading in Bed

Francis Nastrowski was a young Polish officer. He had once been rich, but was so no longer. Some of the habits of his bygone grandeur still clung to him, however. He was apt to say “Put on my boots” or “Fetch my horse” to whoever was there, even the major, and he was incurably vain, and fond of good wine and reading in bed. Harmless pursuits, one might say, but they nearly led to his downfall.

He was stationed in what had once been the only hotel of a small fishing village. One night when the days drew in, and summer waned, and the tops of the waves began to whiten, he and his friends had a present of burgundy, and on that, together with other, more potent spirits, they managed to become, if not drunk, at least very, very friendly.

Francis at last walked carefully up to bed. His bed was on a balcony, and he found it necessary to snatch up the short stories he was reading and huddle hastily into his chilly sheets. But then he had to get out again in search of a hot-water bottle, and it was several more minutes before he was really comfortable, hugging its warmth, and with a large fold of blanket tucked along his back to prevent draughts.

He had read until one elbow was stiff, and was thinking of turning over onto the other when he heard a noise out beyond the balcony. He raised himself up and looked, for he was becoming momently less sleepy under the influence of cold, fresh air. The hotel faced directly on to the harbour, which was double, with a pier running out in the middle and a lighthouse on the pier.

Francis stared out across the water and finally flashed his torch, which sent a long blue-green ray throbbing down clear to the very bottom. He moved it this way and that, over moored boats and upwards, until it came to rest on the pier, and there, caught in the beam, he saw the Devil sitting very comfortably. He knew it was the Devil because of the impeccable cut of his evening suit, and his horns.

“Well, Francis,” called the Devil, “coming across?”

“Just one moment, Devil,” replied Francis, who was tucking in his bedclothes to await his return, and he pulled on his breeches and tunic and dived into the dark, glimmering water.

Its coldness was like a blow. It burnt and bruised him, he felt instinctively that he must keep moving as much and as quickly as possible or he would die. So he swam across with wild, hasty strokes until his numbed hands touched the slippery stones of the pier.

The Devil put his cigarette in his mouth, leant over, and gave him a hand up. The hand smelt slightly of brimstone, but he was in no mood to be particular. He straightened himself up, gasping at the warmth of the air. The Devil silently produced a black fur cloak from somewhere and put it on his shoulders. It fitted like a glove and clung round him warmly, giving him an exquisite sensation in his spine.

They sat side by side in silence for some minutes, until the waves and the nodding of boats, which Francis had caused, were gone and the water was quiet once more.

“Would you care to meet my niece?” asked the Devil.

“Any relation of yours, I should be charmed,” replied Francis, bowing, and they got up and strolled to the other side of the pier, the Devil carrying his tail negligently over his arm. A boat was waiting there. They stepped into it, and Francis took the oars, which began to move rapidly by themselves.

“Devil, let me congratulate you on a very ingenious idea,” said Francis.

The Devil nodded, and they moved forward up the harbour until they came to a flight of steps. Here the boat stopped, spun round twice, and waited while they stepped ashore. It was a part of the town which Francis did not know. They walked along dark cobbled streets, lit here and there by swinging lanterns. There were few lights in the windows. Francis looked in one as he passed; inside an old man was slowly and deliberately swallowing poker after poker. Francis said nothing of this to his companion.

Finally they stopped outside a shop, where a light shone brightly from unshuttered windows. They looked in. It was one of those shops which are found in all old towns and seaside resorts, full of quaint pottery, raffia mats, and wooden calendars with pokerwork dogs on them. Inside, a charming young girl was dancing by herself. She was dressed in an orange overall embroidered with hollyhocks. Her long black plait flew out behind her this way and that as she skipped about the room.

“My niece,” said the Devil.

They stepped inside. The girl stopped dancing and came towards them.

“Niece,” said the Devil, “This is Lieutenent Francis Nastrowski, a great friend of mine, be polite to him.” To Francis he said: “This is my niece, Ola.”

“Delighted to meet you,” said Francis, bowing. Ola’s plait came over her shoulder and patted him on the cheek.

“Will you dance?” she enquired. Before Francis could reply, her plait twined round his neck, and they were spinning giddily round the shop, between the little tables. The Devil sat applauding. Soon they were up through the roof and over the sea. A hundred gulls came circling and shrieking round them, until the whole air seemed white.

“I am giddy. I am going to fall,” shouted Francis in the ear of his partner, and he stared down in terror at the sea heaving beneath them. They swooped down towards it, until he could smell the salt of the waves and see fish swimming under the surface with open mouths and goggling eyes.

In the whisk of an eyelid they were back in the shop. Francis sank into a chair with his knees trembling.

“Francis, you’re a very fine fellow,” said the Devil. “I have admired you for a long time.” Francis felt that he ought to rise and bow, but he was too exhausted, and so he merely nodded. “What would you say to becoming my partner and the owner of this charming little shop?” the Devil asked.

Ola smiled and sidled up to the Devil, who patted her head. She began to purr.

“You would receive half the profits and marry my exquisite niece,” the Devil went on most persuasively.

“I should be delighted,” exclaimed Francis. Suddenly all his exhaustion left him. He rose and danced a mazurka about the room. His black cloak whirled round him, and it seemed that he had an enormous pair of red military boots on, for whenever he clicked his heels and pirouetted, the spurs clashed. Finally he came to rest, balancing accurately on a twisted pewter candlestick.

“Splendid,” said the Devil. “We will drink to your future career.” He fetched down a dusty bottle and three pink ornamental glasses from cupboard. On each of the glasses was inscribed “A Present from Hell.” Francis eyed the bottle with caution. He did not much like the look of the Devil’s tipple, which was black, and wondered if he would have a bottle of anything more palatable remaining in one of his pockets. He felt in one and then another. Aha! There was something long and round. But when he pulled it out he found that it was a large garlic sausage.

It then occurred to him that he might deaden the flavour of the Devil’s black wine by taking a bite of sausage beforehand, and while the Devil was pouring wine into the glasses he cut off three slices with his silver clasp-knife.

“Can I offer you a slice of garlic sausage?” he asked, offering one politely on the point of the knife.

He did not know that garlic is a very ancient and unfailing specific against wicked spirits. The Devil frowned until his eyebrows came down and met over his nose. Little Ola hissed angrily and came creeping towards him. It was evident that he had offended them. Her black pigtail curled round his throat, but with the end of his strength he threw bits of sausage at them both.

Next morning Lieutenant Nastrowski was found floating in shallow water against the rocks in the lower end of the harbour, with a black cat grasped between his two hands and a strand of seaweed round his neck.

It took him several days to recover from his experience, but the cat never recovered.


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