Among the many dissipations of Daniel Dolphin’s unprincipled and profligate life was forgery, for which he spent five years in prison. At the age of ninety-five, he reformed, and during the five years prior to his hundredth birthday he “kept as sober, as honest, and as innocent as one could wish to see any nonagenarian” and looked forward confidently to death and the afterlife. He lives with Martha Dolphin, his granddaughter and sole surviving relative, a middle-aged spinster who narrates the novel.
At his centennial breakfast, Daniel tells Martha of a dream in which the devil visited him and revealed that Daniel was scheduled to die that night. Daniel was told that he could forestall the end by putting himself in the fiend’s hands. In return for his soul, Satan guaranteed Daniel ten more years of life, during which the centenarian would grow younger, cramming another lifetime into the decade. After reading the contract Satan had prepared, Daniel says, he signed it with blood from his shoulder. The old man and Martha make light of the incident, which after all he only dreamed, and they attribute a red mark on his shoulder to a fleabite.
Six months later, during which time his health has improved, Daniel discovers a copy of the contract through which he bartered away his soul. Realizing the terrible dimensions of what he has done and determined to hide his secret, Daniel and Martha leave their village for London. Two birthdays later,...
(The entire section is 456 words.)