The strange affair of Spring-heeled Jack
A known mistake is bettor than an unknown truth.
THE AFTERMATH OF AFRICA
Everything Life places in your path is an opportunity.
No matter how difficult.
No matter how upsetting.
No matter how impenetrable.
No matter how you judge it.
Sir Richard Francis Burton staggered back and collapsed into his chair. The note Arthur Findlay had passed to him fluttered to the floor. The other men turned away, took their seats, examined their fingernails, and fiddled with their shirt collars; anything to avoid looking at their stricken colleague.
From where she stood on the threshold of the "robing room," hidden by its partially closed door, Isabel Arundell could see that her lover's normally dark and intense eyes were wide with shock, filled with a sudden vulnerability. His mouth moved spasmodically, as if he were struggling to chew and swallow something indigestible. She longed to rush to his side to comfort him and to ask what tidings had wounded him; to snatch up that note and read it; to find out who had killed himself, but such a display would be unseemly in front of the small gathering, not to mention embarrassing for Richard. He, among all men, stood on his own two feet, no matter how dire the situation. Isabel alone was aware of his sensitivity; and she would never cause it to be exposed to others.
Many people-mostly those who referred to him as "Ruffian Dick"considered Burton's brutal good looks to be a manifestation of his inner nature. They could never imagine that he doubted himself; though if they were to see him now, so shaken, perhaps it might strike them that he wasn't quite the devil he appeared, despite the fierce moustache and forked beard.
It was difficult to see past such a powerful facade.
The Committee had only just gathered at the table, but after glancing at Burton's anguished expression, Sir Roderick Murchison, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, came to a decision.
"Let us take a moment," he muttered.
Burton stood and held up a hand in protest. "Pray, gentlemen," he whispered hoarsely, "continue with your meeting. The scheduled debate will, of course, have to be cancelled, but if you'll allow me half an hour, perhaps I can organise my notes and make a small presentation concerning the valley of the Indus, so as not to disappoint the crowd."
"That's very good of you, Sir Richard," said one of the Committee members, Sir James Alexander. "But, really, this must have come as a terrible blow. If you would rather-"
"Just grant me thirty minutes to prepare. They have, after all, paid for their tickets."
"Very well. Thank you."
Burton turned and walked unsteadily to the door, passed through, closed it behind him, and stood facing Isabel, swaying slightly.
At five eleven, he personally bemoaned the lost inch that would have made him a six-footer, though, to others, the breadth of his shoulders, depth of his chest, slim but muscular build, and overwhelming charisma made him seem a giant, even compared with much taller men.
He had short black hair, which he wore swept backward. His skin was swarthy and weather-beaten, giving his straight features rather an Arabic cast, further accentuated by his prominent cheekbones, both disfigured by scars-a smallish one on the right, but a long, deep, and jagged one on the left, which tugged slightly at his bottom eyelid. They were the entry and exit wounds caused by a Somali spear that had been thrust through his face during an ill-fated expedition to Berbera, on the Horn of Africa.
To Isabel, those scars were the mark of an adventurous and fearless soul. Burton was in every respect her "ideal man." He was a wild, passionate, and romantic figure, quite unlike the staid and emotionally cold men who moved in London's social circles. Her parents thought him unsuitable but Isabel knew there could be no other for her.
He stumbled forward into her arms.
"What ails you so, Dick?" she gasped, holding him by the shoulders. "What has happened?"
"John has shot himselfl"
"No!" she exclaimed. "He's dead?"
Burton stepped back and wiped a sleeve across his eyes. "Not yet. But he took a bullet to the head. Isabel, I have to work up a presentation. Can I rely on you to find out where he's been taken? I must see him. I have to make my peace with him before-"
"Of course, dear. Of course! I shall make enquiries at once. Must you speak, though? No one would fault you if you were to withdraw."
"I'll speak. We'll meet later, at the hotel."
She kissed his cheek and left him; walked a short way along the elegant marble-floored corridor and, with a glance back, disappeared through the door to the auditorium. As it swung open and closed, Burton heard the crowd beyond grumbling with impatience. There were even some boos. They had waited long enough; they wanted blood; wanted to see him, Burton, shame and humiliate the man he'd once considered a brother: John Harming Speke.
"I'll make an announcement," muttered a voice behind him. He turned to find that Murchison had left the Committee and was standing at his shoulder. Beads of sweat glistened on the president's bald head. His narrow face was haggard and pale.
"Is it-is it my fault, Sir Roderick?" rasped Burton.
Murchison frowned. "Is it your fault that you possess exacting standards while, according to the calculations John Speke presented to the Society, the Nile runs uphill for ninety miles? Is it your fault that you are an erudite and confident debater while Speke can barely string two words together? Is it your fault that mischief-makers manipulated him and turned him against you? No, Richard, it is not."
Burton considered this for a moment, then said, "You speak of him so and yet you supported him. You financed his second expedition and refused me mine."
"Because he was right. Despite his slapdash measurements and his presumptions and guesswork, the Committee feels it likely that the lake he discovered is, indeed, the source of the Nile. The simple truth of the matter, Richard, is that he found it while you, I'm sorry to say, did not. I never much liked the man, may God have mercy on his soul, but fortune favoured him, and not you."
Murchison moved aside as the Committee members filed out of the robing room, heading for the presentation hall.
"I'm sorry, Richard. I have to go."
Murchison joined his fellows.
"Wait!" called Burton, pacing after him. "I should be there too."
"It's not necessary."
"Very well. Come."
They entered the packed auditorium and stepped onto the stage amid sarcastic cheers from the crowd. Colonel William Sykes, who was hosting the debate, was already at the podium, unhappily attempting to quell the more disruptive members of the restless throng; namely, the many journalistsincluding the mysterious young American Henry Morton Stanley-who seemed intent on making the occasion as newsworthy as possible. Doctor Livingstone sat behind Sykes, looking furious. Clement Markham, also seated on the stage, was chewing his nails nervously. Burton slumped into the chair beside him, drew a small notebook and a pencil from his pocket, and began to write.
Sir James Alexander, Arthur Findlay, and the other geographers took their seats on the stage.
The crowd hooted and jeered.
"About time! Did you get lost?" someone shouted waggishly. A roar of approval greeted the gibe.
Murchison muttered something into the colonel's ear. Sykes nodded and retreated to join the others.
The president stepped forward, tapped his knuckles against the podium, and looked stonily at the expectant faces. The audience quieted until, aside from occasional coughs, it became silent.
Sir Roderick Murchison spoke: "Proceedings have been delayed and for that I have to apologise-but when I explain to you the cause, you will pardon me. We have been in our Committee so profoundly affected by a dreadful calamity that has-"
He paused; cleared his throat; gathered himself.
11 -that has befallen Lieutenant Speke. A calamity by which, it pains me to report, he must surely lose his life."
Shouts of dismay and consternation erupted.
Murchison held out his hands and called, "Please! Please!"
Slowly, the noise subsided.
"We do not at present have a great deal of information," he continued, "but for a letter from Lieutenant Speke's brother, which was delivered by a runner a short while ago. It tells that yesterday afternoon the lieutenant joined a hunting party on the Fuller Estate near Neston Park. At four o'clock, while he was negotiating a wall, his gun went off and severely wounded him about the head."
"Did he shoot himself, sir?" cried a voice from the back of the hall.
"Purposefully, you mean? There is nothing to suggest such a thing!"
"Captain Burton!" yelled another. "Did you pull the trigger?"
"How dare you, sir!" thundered Murchison. "That is entirely unwarranted! I will not have it!"
A barrage of questions flew from the audience, a great many of them directed at Burton.
The famous explorer tore a page from his notebook, handed it to Clement Markham, and, leaning close, muttered into his ear. Markham glanced at the paper, stood, stepped to Murchison's side, and said something in a low voice.
Murchison gave a nod.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "you came to the Bath Assembly Rooms to hear a debate between Captain Sir Richard Burton and Lieutenant John Speke on the matter of the source of the Nile. I, of course, understand you wish to hear from Sir Richard concerning this terrible accident that has befallen his colleague, but, as you might suppose, he has been greatly affected and feels unable to speak at this present time. He has, however, written a short statement which will now be read by Mr. Clement Markham."
Murchison moved away from the podium and Markham took his place.
In a quiet and steady tone, he read from Burton's note: "The man I once called brother today lies gravely wounded. The differences of opinion that are known to have lain between us since his return from Africa make it more incumbent on me to publicly express my sincere feeling of admiration for his character and enterprise, and my deep sense of shock that this fate has befallen him. Whatever faith you may adhere to, I beg of you to pray for him."
Markham returned to his chair.
There was not a sound in the auditorium.
"There will be a thirty-minute recess," declared Murchison, "then Sir Richard will present a paper concerning the valley of the Indus. In the meantime, may I respectfully request your continued patience whilst we rearrange this afternoon's schedule? Thank you."
He led the small group of explorers and geographers out of the auditorium and, after brief and subdued words with Burton, they headed back to the robing room.
Sir Richard Francis Burton, his mind paralysed, his heart brimming, walked in the opposite direction until he came to one of the reading rooms. Mercifully, it was unoccupied. He entered, closed the door, and leaned against it.
"I'm sorry. I can't continue."
It was the faintest of whispers.
He'd spoken for twenty minutes, hardly knowing what he was saying, reading mechanically from his journals, his voice faint and quavering. His words had slowed then trailed off altogether.
When he looked up, he saw hundreds of pairs of eyes locked on to him; and in them there was pity.
He drew in a deep breath.
"I'm sorry," he said more loudly. "There will be no debate today."
He turned away from the crowd and, closing his ears to the shouted questions and polite applause, left the stage, pushed past Findlay and Livingstone, and practically ran to the lobby. He asked the cloakroom attendant for his overcoat, top hat, and cane, and, upon receiving them, hurried out through the main doors and descended the steps to the street.
It was just past midday. Dark clouds drifted across the sky; the recent spell of fine weather was dissipating, the temperature falling.
He waved down a hansom.
"Where to, sir?" asked the driver.
"The Royal Hotel."
"Right you are. Jump aboard."
Burton clambered into the cabin and sat on the wooden seat. There were cigar butts all over the floor. He felt numb and registered nothing of his surroundings as the vehicle began to rumble over the cobbles.
He tried to summon up visions of Speke; the Speke of the past, when the young lieutenant had been a valued companion rather than a bitter enemy. His memory refused to cooperate and instead took him back to the event that lay at the root of their feud: the attack in Berbera, six years ago.
Berbera, the easternmost tip of Africa, April 19, 1855. Thunderstorms had been flickering on the horizon for the past few days. The air was heavy and damp.
Lieutenant Burton's party had set up camp on a rocky ridge, about threequarters of a mile outside the town, near to the beach. Lieutenant Stroyan's tent was twelve yards off to the right of the "Rowtie" that Burton shared with Lieutenant Herne. Lieutenant Speke's was a similar distance to the left, separated from the others by the expedition's supplies and equipment, which had been secured beneath a tarpaulin.
Not far away, fifty-six camels, five horses, and two mules were tethered. In addition to the four Englishmen, there were thirty-eight other men- abbans, guards, servants, and camel-drivers, all armed.
With the monsoon season imminent, Berbera had been virtually abandoned during the course of the past week. An Arab caravan had lingered, but after Burton refused to offer it an escort out of the town-preferring to wait instead for a supply ship that was due any time from Aden-it had finally departed.
Now, Berbera was silent.
The expedition had retired for the night. Burton had posted three extra guards, for Somali tribes from up and down the coast had been threatening an attack for some days. They believed the British were here either to stop the lucrative slave trade or to lay claim to the small trading post.
At two thirty in the morning, Burton was jolted from his sleep by shouts and gunfire.
He opened his eyes and stared at the roof of his tent. Orange light quivered on the canvas.
He sat up.
El Balyuz, the chief abban, burst in.
"They are attacking!" the man yelled, and a look of confusion passed over his dark face, as if he couldn't believe his own words. "Your gun, Effendi!" He handed Burton a revolver.
The explorer pushed back his bedsheets and stood; laid the pistol on the map table and pulled on his trousers; snapped his braces over his shoulders; picked up the gun.
"More bloody posturing!" He grinned across to Herne, who'd also awoken, hastily dressed, and snatched up his Colt. "It's all for show, but we shouldn't let them get too cocky. Go out the back of the tent, away from the campfire, and ascertain their strength. Let off a few rounds over their heads, if necessary. They'll soon bugger off."
"Right you are," said Herne, and pushed through the canvas at the rear of the Rowtie.
Burton checked his gun.
"For Pete's sake, Balyuz, why have you handed me an unloaded pistol? Get me my sabre!"
He shoved the Colt into the waistband of his trousers and snatched his sword from the Arab.
"Speke!" he bellowed. "Stroyan!"
Almost immediately, the tent flap was pushed aside and Speke stumbled in. He was a tall, thin, pale man, with watery eyes, light brown hair, and a long bushy beard. He usually wore a mild and slightly self-conscious expression, but now his eyes were wild.
"They knocked my tent down around my ears! I almost took a beating! Is there shooting to be done?"
"I rather suppose there is," said Burton, finally realising that the situation might be more serious than he'd initially thought. "Be sharp, and arm to defend the camp!"
They waited a few moments, checking their gear and listening to the rush of men outside.
A voice came from behind them: "There's a lot of the blighters and our confounded guards have taken to their heels!" It was Herne, returning from his recce. "I took a couple of potshots at the mob but then got tangled in the tent ropes. A big Somali took a swipe at me with a bloody great club. I put a bullet into the bastard. Stroyan's either out cold or done for; I couldn't get near him."
Something thumped against the side of the tent. Then again. Suddenly a veritable barrage of blows pounded the canvas while war cries were raised all around. The attackers were swarming like hornets. Javelins were thrust through the opening. Daggers ripped at the material.
"Bismillah!" cursed Burton. "We're going to have to fight our way to the supplies and get ourselves more guns! Herne, there are spears tied to the tent pole at the back get 'em!"
"Yes, sir!" responded Herne, returning to the rear of the Rowtie. Almost immediately, he ran back, crying, "They're breaking through the canvas!"
Burton swore vociferously. "If this blasted thing comes down on us we'll be caught up good and proper. Get out! Come on! Now!"
He plunged through the tent flaps and into the night, where he found himself facing twenty or so Somali natives. Others were running around the camp, driving away the camels and pillaging the supplies. With a shout, he leaped forward and began to set about the attackers with his sabre.
Was that Lieutenant Stroyan lying over in the shadows? It was hard to tell. Burton slashed his way toward the prone figure, grimacing as clubs and spear shafts thudded against his flesh, bruising and cutting him, drawing blood.
He momentarily glanced back to see how the others were doing and saw Speke stepping backward into the tent entrance, his mouth hanging open, eyes panicked.
"Don't step back!" he roared. "They'll think that we're retiring!"
Speke looked at him with an expression of utter dismay and, right there, in the midst of battle, their friendship ended, for John Hanning Speke knew that his cowardice had been recognised.
A club struck Burton on the shoulder and, tearing his eyes away from the other Englishman, he spun and swiped his blade at its owner. He was jostled back and forth. One set of hands kept pushing at his back, and he wheeled impatiently, raising his sword, only recognising El Balyuz at the very last moment.
His arm froze in midswing.
His head exploded with pain.
A weight pulled him sideways and he collapsed onto the stony earth.
Dazed, he reached up. A barbed javelin had transfixed his face, entering the left cheek and exiting the right, knocking out some back teeth, cutting his tongue, and cracking his palate.
He fought to stay conscious.
Someone started dragging him away from the conflict.
He passed out.
In front of the Rowtie, Speke, driven to a fury by the exposure of the shameful flaw in his character, strode into the melee, raised his Dean and Adams revolver, pressed its muzzle against the chest of the man who'd downed Burton, and pulled the trigger.
The gun jammed.
"Blast it!" said Speke.
The tribesman, a massive warrior, looked down at him, smiled, and punched him over the heart.
Speke fell to his knees, gasping for air.
The Somali bent, took him by the hair, pulled him backward, and, with his other hand, groped between Speke's legs. For an instant, the Englishman had the terrifying conviction that he was going to be unmanned. The tribesman, though, was simply checking for daggers, hidden in the Arabic fashion.
Speke was thrust onto his back and his hands were quickly tied together, the cords pulled cruelly tight. Yanked upright, he was marched away from the camp, which was now being looted and destroyed.
Lieutenant Burton regained his wits and found that he was being pulled toward the beach by El Balyuz. He recovered himself sufficiently to stop his rescuer and to order the man, via sign language and writing in a patch of sand, to go and fetch the small boat that the expedition party had moored in the harbour, and to bring it to the mouth of a nearby creek.
El Balyuz nodded and ran off.
Burton lay on his back and gazed at the Milky Way.
I want to live! he thought.
A minute or so passed. He raised a hand to his face and felt the barbed point of the javelin. The only way to remove it was by sliding the complete length of the shaft through his mouth and cheeks. He took a firm grip on it, pushed, and fainted.
As the night wore on, John Speke was taunted and spat upon by his captors. With their sabres, they sliced the air inches from his face. He stood and endured it, his eyes hooded, his jaw set, expecting to die, and he wondered what Richard Burton would say about him when reporting this incident.
Don't step back! They'll think that we're retiring!
The rebuke had stung, and if Burton put it on record, Speke would be forever branded as less than a man. Damn the arrogant blackguard!
One of his captors casually thrust his spear through Speke's side. The lieutenant cried out in pain, then fell backward as the point pierced him again, this time in the shoulder.
This is the end, he told himself.
He struggled back to his feet and, as the spear was stabbed at his heart, deflected it with his bound hands. The point tore the flesh behind his knuckles to the bone.
The Somali stepped back.
Speke straightened and looked at him.
"To hell with you," he said. "I won't die yellow."
The tribesman leaped in and prodded the spear into Speke's left thigh. The explorer felt the blade scrape against bone.
"Shit!" he coughed in shock, and grabbed reflexively at the shaft. He and the African fought over it-one trying to gain possession, the other struggling to retain it. The Somali let go with his left hand and used it to pull a shillelagh from his belt. He swiped at Speke's right arm and the cudgel connected with a horrible crack. Speke dropped the spear shaft and crumpled to his knees, gasping with agony.
His attacker walked away, turned back, and ran at him, plunging the spear completely through the Englishman's right thigh and into the ground beyond.
Instinct took over.
With his awareness strangely separated from his body, he watched as his hands gripped the weapon, pulled it free of the ground, out through his thigh, and threw it aside. Then he stumbled into his attacker and his bound fists swept up, smashing into the man's face.
The warrior rocked back, raising a hand to his face as blood spurted from his nose.
Speke half walked, half hopped away, his disengaged mind wondering how he was staying upright with such terrible injuries.
Where's the pain? he mused, entirely unaware that he was afire with it.
He hobbled, barefoot, across jagged rock, down a slope, and onto the shingle of the beach. Somehow, he started to run. What tatters of clothing remained on him streamed behind.
The Somali snatched up the spear and gave chase, threw the weapon, missed, and gave up.
Other tribesmen lunged for the Englishman but Speke dodged them and kept going. He outdistanced his pursuers and, when he saw that they'd given up the chase, he collapsed onto a rock and chewed through the cord that bound his wrists.
He was faint with shock and loss of blood but knew that he had to find his companions, so, as dawn broke, he pushed on until he reached Berbera. Here he was discovered by a search party led by Lieutenant Herne and was carried to the boat at the mouth of the creek. He'd run for three miles and had eleven wounds, including the two that had pierced the large muscles of his thighs.
They placed him onto a seat and he raised his head and looked at the man sitting opposite. It was Burton, his face bandaged, blood staining the linen over his cheeks.
Their eyes met.
"I'm no damned coward," whispered Speke.
The battle should have made them brothers. They both acted as if it hadand less than two years later they embarked together on one of the greatest expeditions in British history: a perilous trek into central Africa to search for the source of the Nile.
Side by side, they endured extreme conditions, penetrating into lands unseen by white men and skirting dangerously close to Death's realm. An infection temporarily blinded and immobilised Burton. Speke became permanently deaf in one ear after attempting to remove an insect from it with a penknife. They were both stricken with malaria, dysentery, and crippling ulcers.
They pressed on.
Speke's resentment simmered.
He constructed his own history of the Berbera incident, excising from it the most essential element: the fact that a thrown stone had cracked against his kneecap, causing him to step back into the Rowtie's entrance. Burton had looked around at that very instant and had plainly seen the stone bounce off Speke's knee and understood the back-step for the reaction it was. He'd never for one moment doubted his companion's courage.
Speke knew the stone had been seen but chose to forget it. History, he discovered, is what you make it.
They reached the central lakes.
Burton explored a large body of water called by the local tribes "Tanganyika," which lay to the south of the Mountains of the Moon. His geographical readings suggested that it could be the Nile's source, though he was too ill to visit its northernmost shore from whence the great river should flow.
Speke, leaving his "brother" in a fevered delirium, trekked northeastward and found himself at the shore of a vast lake, which he imperiously named after the British monarch, though the tribes that lived on its shores already had a name for it: "Nyanza."
He tried to circle it, lost sight of it, found it again farther to the northor was it the shore of a second lake?-took incomplete, incompetent measurements, and returned to Burton, the leader of the expedition, claiming to have found, on his own and without a shadow of a doubt, the true source of the great river.
They recovered a modicum of health and undertook the long march back to Zanzibar where Burton fell into a fit of despondency, blaming himself for what, by his demanding standards, was inconclusive evidence.
John Speke, less scientific, less scrupulous, less disciplined, sailed back to England ahead of Burton and en route fell under the influence of a man named Laurence Oliphant, an arch-meddler and poseur who kept a white panther as a pet. Oliphant nurtured Speke's pique, turned it into malice, and seduced him into claiming victory. No matter that it was the other man's expedition; Speke had solved the biggest geographical riddle of the age!
John Speke's last words to Burton had been "Good-bye, old fellow; you may be quite sure I shall not go up to the Royal Geographical Society until you have come to the fore and we appear together. Make your mind quite easy about that."
The day he landed in England, Speke went straight up to the Royal Geo graphical Society and told Sir Roderick Murchison that the Nile question was settled.
The Society divided. Some of its members supported Burton, others supported Speke. Mischief makers stepped in to ensure that what should have been a scientific debate rapidly degenerated into a personal feud, though Burton, now recovering his health in Aden, was barely aware of this.
Easily swayed, Speke became overconfident. He began to criticise Burton's character, a dangerous move for a man who believed that his cowardice had been witnessed by his opponent.
Word reached Burton that he was to be awarded a knighthood and should return to England at once. He did so, and stepped ashore to find himself at the centre of a maelstrom.
Even as the reclusive monarch's representative touched the sword to his shoulders and dubbed him Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous explorer's thoughts were on John Speke, wondering why he was taking the offensive in such a manner.
Over the following weeks, Burton defended himself but resisted the temptation to retaliate.
Life is fickle; the fair man doesn't invariably win.
Lieutenant Speke, it gradually became apparent, had made a lucky guess: the Nyanza probably was the source of the Nile.
Murchison knew, as Burton had been quick to point out, that Speke's readings and calculations were badly faulted. In fact, they were downright amateurish and not at all admissible as scientific evidence. Nevertheless, there was in them the suggestion of a potential truth. This was enough; the Society funded a second expedition.
John Speke went back to Africa, this time with a young, loyal, and opinion-free soldier named James Grant. He explored the Nyanza, failed to circumnavigate it, didn't find the Nile's exit point, didn't take accurate measurements, and returned to England with another catalogue of assumptions which Burton, with icy efficiency, proceeded to pick to pieces.
A face-to-face confrontation between the two men seemed inevitable.
It was gleefully engineered by Oliphant, who had, by this time, mysteriously vanished from the public eye-into an opium den, according to rumour-to pull strings like an invisible puppeteer.
He arranged for the Bath Assembly Rooms to be the venue and September 16, 1861, the date. To encourage Burton's participation, he made it publicly known that Speke had said: "If Burton dares to appear on the platform at Bath, I will kick him!"
Burton had fallen for it: "That settles it! By God, he shall kick me!"
The hansom drew up outside the Royal Hotel, and Burton's mind reengaged with the present. He emerged from the cab with one idea uppermost: someday, Laurence Oliphant would pay.
He entered the hotel. The receptionist signalled to him; a message from Isabel was waiting.
He took the note and read it:
John was taken to London. On my way to Fullers' to find out exactly where.
Burton gritted his teeth. Stupid woman! Did she think she'd be welcomed by Speke's family? Did she honestly believe they'd tell her anything about his condition or whereabouts? As much as he loved her, Isabel's impatience and lack of subtlety never failed to rile him. She was the proverbial bull in a china shop, always charging at her target without considering anything that might lie in her path, always utterly confident that what she wanted to do was right, whatever anyone else might think.
He wrote a terse reply:
Left for London. Pay, pack, and follow.
He looked up at the hotel receptionist. "Please give this to Miss Arundell when she returns. Do you have a Bradshaw?"
"Traditional or atmospheric railway, sir?"
He was handed the train timetable. The next atmospheric train was leaving in fifty minutes. Time enough to throw a few odds and ends into a suitcase and get to the station.
THE THING IN THE ALLEY
The Eugenicists are beginning to call their filthy experimentations "genetics," after the Ancient Greek "genesis," meaning "Origin." This is in response to the work of Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian priest. A priest! Can there be any greater hypocrite than a priest who meddles with Creation?
It was a fast and smooth ride to London.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel's atmospheric railway system was a triumph. It used wide-gauge tracks in the centre of which ran a fifteen-inch-diameter pipe. Along the top of the pipe there was a two-inch slot, covered with a flapvalve of oxhide leather. Beneath the front carriage of each train hung a dumbbell-shaped piston, which fitted snugly into the pipe. This was connected to the carriage by a thin shaft that rose through the slot. The shaft had a small wheeled contrivance attached to it that pressed open the leather flap at the front while closing and oiling it at the back. Every three miles along the track, a station sucked air out of the pipe in front of the train and pumped it back in behind. It was this difference in air pressure that shot the carriages along the tracks at tremendous speed.
When Brunel first created the system he encountered an unexpected problem: rats ate the oxhide. He turned to his Eugenicist colleague, Francis Galton, for a solution, and the scientist had provided it in the form of specially bred oxen whose skin was both repellent and poisonous to the rodents.
The pneumatic rail system now ran the length and breadth of Great Britain and was being extended throughout the Empire, particularly in India and South Africa.
A similar method of propulsion was planned for the new London Under ground railway system, though this project had been delayed since Brunel's death two years ago.
Burton arrived home at 14 Montagu Place at half past six, by which time a mist was drifting through the city streets. As he opened the wrought-iron gate and stepped to the front door, he heard a newsboy in the distance calling: "Speke shoots himself. Nile debate in uproar! Read all about it!"
He sighed and waited for the young urchin to draw closer. He recognised the soft Irish accent; it was Oscar, a refugee from the never-ending famine, whose regular round this was. The boy possessed an extraordinary facility with words, which Burton thoroughly appreciated.
The youngster approached, saw him, and grinned. He was a short and rather plump lad, about eight years old, with sleepy-looking eyes and a cheeky grin marred only by crooked, yellowing teeth. He wore his hair too long and was never without a battered top hat and a flower in his buttonhole.
"Hallo, Captain! I see you're after making the headlines again!"
"It's no laughing matter, Quips," replied Burton, using the nickname he'd given the newspaper boy some weeks previously. "Come into the hallway for a moment; I want to talk with you. I suppose the journalists are all blaming me?"
Oscar joined the explorer at the door and waited while he fished for his keys.
"Well now, Captain, there's much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community."
"Ignorance is the word," agreed Burton. He opened the door and ushered the youngster in. "If the reaction of the crowd in Bath is anything to go by, I rather suspect that the charitable are saying Speke shot himself, the uncharitable that I shot him."
Oscar laid his bundle of newspapers on the doormat.
"You're not wrong, sir; but what do you say?"
"That no one currently knows what happened except those who were there. That maybe it wouldn't have happened at all had I tried a little harder to bridge the divide that opened between us; been, perhaps, a little more sensitive to Speke's personal demons."
"Ah, demons, is it?" exclaimed the boy, in his high, reedy voice. "And what of your own? Are they not encouraging you to luxuriate in selfreproach?"
"To be sure. When we blame ourselves, we feel no one else has a right to blame us. What a luxury that is!"
Burton grunted. He put his cane in an elephant-foot umbrella stand, placed his topper on the hatstand, and slipped out of his overcoat.
"You are a horribly intelligent little ragamuffin, Quips."
Oscar giggled. "It's true. I'm so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I'm saying!"
Burton lifted a small bell from the hall table and rang for his housekeeper.
"But is it not the truth, Captain Burton," continued the boy, "that you only ever asked Speke to produce scientific evidence to back up his claims?"
"Absolutely. I attacked his methods but never him, though he didn't extend to me the same courtesy."
They were interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Iris Angell, who, though Burton's landlady, was also his housekeeper. She was a wide-hipped, white-haired old dame with a kindly face, square chin, and gloriously blue and generous eyes.
"I hope you wiped your feet, Master Oscar!"
"Clean shoes are the measure of a gentleman, Mrs. Angell," responded the boy.
"Well said. There's a freshly baked bacon and egg pie in my kitchen. Would you care for a slice?"
"Very much so!"
The old lady looked at Burton, who nodded. She went back down the stairs to her domain in the basement.
"So it's information you'll be wanting, Captain?" asked Oscar.
"I need to know where Lieutenant Speke has been taken. I know he was brought to London from Bath-but to which hospital? Can you find out?"
"Of course! I'll spread the word among the lads. I should have an answer for you within the hour."
"Very good. Miss Arundell is also making enquiries, though I fear her approach will have caused nothing but trouble."
"How so, Captain?"
"She's visiting the Speke family to offer her condolences."
Oscar winced. "By heavens! There is nothing more destructive than a woman on a charitable mission. I hope for your sake that Mr. Stanley doesn't get wind of it."
Burton sighed. "Bismillah! I'd forgotten about him!"
Henry Morton Stanley, the journalist, was recently arrived in London from America. His background was somewhat mysterious; traces of a Welsh accent suggested he wasn't the authentic "Yankee" he claimed to be, and there were rumours that his name was false. Whatever the true facts about him, though, he was making a big splash as a newspaper reporter, having taken a particular interest in the various expeditions organised by the Royal Geographical Society. Befriending Doctor Livingstone, Stanley had sided with him against Burton in the Nile debate and had written some less than flattering articles in the Empire, including one that accused Burton of having murdered a boy who caught him urinating in the European fashion during his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. As Burton had been quick to point out, his disguise, skill with the language, and painstaking observation of customs were convincing enough to fool his fellow pilgrims into believing him an Arab over a period of many months; it was therefore quite unthinkable that he'd have been caught making so basic a mistake as to urinate standing up. Besides which, killing the boy would certainly have led to his exposure as an impostor and a summary execution.
Stanley had also attacked Isabel in the press, vilifying her for her lack of subtlety and overly headstrong character. Burton couldn't help but think that she was becoming a liability at this crucial point in his career, a situation which Stanley had spotted some time ago and was revelling in.
"Yum!" exclaimed Oscar.
Mrs. Angell had reappeared with a generous slice of pie. She handed it to the youngster.
"It's nothing special, but I hope it fills that bottomless hole you call a stomach!" she said.
"I have the simplest tastes, Mrs. Angell," declared the newsboy. "I am always satisfied with the best!"
Burton ruffled the lad's hair. "Off you go then, Quips. There'll be a second slice waiting for you when you return."
Oscar heaved a sigh of contentment, picked up his papers, and flitted out through the door, which Burton held open for him.
As he closed the portal, the explorer looked at his landlady.
"You've heard the news?"
"Yes, sir. May God preserve him. It must have been a terrible shock for you."
"He hated me."
"If you don't mind me saying so, sir, I think he was misguided."
"I don't disagree. Have reporters been banging on the door?"
"No, sir, they probably think you're still in Bath."
"Good. If they call, empty a bucket of slops over them. No visitors, please, Mother Angell. I don't want to see anyone until young Oscar returns."
"Very well. Can I bring you something to eat?"
Burton began to climb the stairs. "Yes, please. And a pot of coffee."
The old lady watched him as he reached the landing, turned right, and disappeared into his study. She pursed her lips. She knew Burton well enough to recognise the developing mood.
"Coffee, my eye!" she muttered as she descended to the kitchen. "He'll be through a bottle of brandy before the evening is old!"
Burton had, indeed, poured himself a large measure of brandy, and was now slumped in his old saddlebag armchair by the fireplace, his feet resting on the fender. He held the glass in one hand and a letter in the other. It was from 10 Downing Street and read:
Please contact the prime minister's office immediately upon your return to London.
He sipped the brandy and savoured the fire that sank into his belly. He was tired but not sleepy, and felt the heavy weight of depression dragging at him.
Laying his head back, and with eyes half closed, he focused his mind on his sense of hearing. It was a Sufi trick he'd learned en route to Mecca. Sight was the primary sense; when another was given precedence and the mind was allowed to wander, ideas, insights, and hitherto unseen connections often bubbled up from its otherwise inaccessible depths.
He heard a bookshelf creak slightly as its wood adjusted to the changing temperature of early evening; it was the only sound from within the study, aside from his own breathing and the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. From beyond the two large sash windows, though, came the muffled cacophony of England's capital: voices passing on the pavement below, the clatter and chugging engines of velocipedes, the cry of a street hawker, the choppy paradiddle of a rotorchair passing overhead, a barking dog, a crying child, the rumble and hiss of steam-horses, the clip-clop of real horses, the coarse laughter of prostitutes.
He heard footsteps on the stairs.
A question came to him: What am I to do now?
There was a soft knock at the door.
Mrs. Angell entered bearing a tray upon which lay a plate of sliced meats, cheese, and a chunk of bread. There was also a cup and saucer, a bowl of sugar, and a pot of coffee. She crossed the room and laid it on the occasional table beside Burton's chair.
"It's getting unseasonably cold, sir-shall I light the fire?"
"It's all right, I'll do it. Would you take a letter for me?"
The housekeeper, who often performed slight secretarial tasks for him, sat at one of the three desks, slid a sheet of blank paper onto the leather writing pad, and picked up a pen. She dipped the nib into the inkwell and wrote, at Burton's dictation:
1 ant at hone in London. Awaiting further instructions. Burton.
"Send it by runner to 10 Downing Street, please."
The old lady looked up in surprise. "To where?"
"10 Downing Street. At once, please."
She departed with the note. A few moments later, he heard her at the front door blowing three blasts on a whistle. Within half a minute, a dogalmost certainly a greyhound-would arrive on the doorstep and, after she'd fed the animal, the housekeeper would place the letter between its teeth and announce the destination. There'd be an acknowledging wag of the tail, and the runner would race away en route for Downing Street.
They were part of a fairly new communications system, these remarkable dogs, the first practical application of eugenics adopted by the British public. Each hound came into the world knowing every address within a fifty-mile radius of its birthplace and with the ability to carry mail between those locations, barking and scratching at a recipient's door until the letter was collected. After each task was completed, the runner would wander the streets until it heard another three-whistle summons.
Messenger parakeets formed the other half of the system. These phenomenal mimics carried spoken communications. A person only had to visit a post office and give one of the birds a message, the name of the recipient, and the address, and the parakeet would fly straight to the appropriate set of ears.
There was one problem, an issue that had troubled the Eugenicist scientists from the start: namely, that whatever modification they made to a species, it always seemed to bring with it an unexpected side effect.
In the case of the parakeets, it was that they swore at, mocked, and offended everyone they encountered. The person on the receiving end of the service would inevitably be given a message liberally peppered with insults not put there by the sender. Nothing, it seemed, could be done to correct this fault. Originally, it had been hoped that every household would have its own parakeet but, as it turned out, no one could bear the constant abuse in their own home. So the Post Office had stepped in and now each branch kept an aviary full of the birds.
In the runners' case, the drawback was nothing more serious than a phenomenal appetite. Though they were whiplash thin, the dogs required a square meal at every address they visited, so despite being a free system, those who used it often found themselves investing a considerable amount of money in dog food.
Burton heard the front door close. His letter was on its way.
He took a swig of brandy and reached for a cheroot; he had a taste for cheap, strong tobacco.
Explore Dahomey? he thought, still dwelling on what he should do now that the Nile question was out of his hands; for though a new expedition was required to settle the matter once and for all, he knew that Murchison would not commission him to lead it. The Royal Geographical Society was already fractured by the verbal duel he and Speke had fought, and the president would doubtlessly offer the expedition to a neutral geographer.
So, Dahomey? Burton had been wanting to mount an expedition into that dark and dangerous region of West Africa for some time but now it was going to be difficult to raise the money.
A private sponsor, perhaps? Maybe a publishing company?
Ah, yes, then there were the books. For a long while he'd wanted to write a definitive translation of The Thousand Nights and a Night; perhaps now would be a good time to begin that ambitious project. At very least he should finish Vikram and the Vampire, the collected tales of Hindu devilry that were currently stacked on one of his desks, with annotations half completed.
Write books, keep a low profile, wait for his enemies to become bored.
He looked at his empty glass, blew cigar smoke into it, held the cheroot between his teeth, and reached for the decanter and poured more brandy.
For more than a year, he'd felt destined to marry Isabel Arundell; now, suddenly, he wasn't so sure. He loved her, that was certain, but he also resented her. He loved her strength and practicality but resented her overbearing personality and tendency to do things on his behalf without consulting him first; loved the fact that she tolerated his interest in all things exotic and erotic but hated her blinkered Catholicism. Charles Darwin had killed God but she and her family, like so many others, still clung to the delusion.
He sought to quell his mounting frustration with another glass. And another. And more.
At eight o'clock there came a tap at the door and Mrs. Angell appeared, looking with disapproval at the drunken explorer.
"Did you even touch the coffee?" she asked.
"No, and I don't intend to," he replied. "What do you want?"
"The boy is back."
"Quips? Send him up."
"I don't think so, sir. You're in no state to receive a child."
"Send him up, blast you!"
Burton pushed himself up from his chair and stood unsteadily, his eyes blazing.
"You'll do as you're bloody well told, woman!"
"No, sir, I won't. Not when I'm told by a foul-mouthed drunkard. And I remind you that though I am your employee, you are also my tenant, and I am free to end our arrangement whenever I see fit. I shall take a message from the boy and bring it to you forthwith."
She stepped back to the landing, closing the door behind her.
Burton took a couple of steps toward the door, thought better of it, and stood swaying in the centre of the room. He looked around at the bookcases, filled with volumes about geography, religion, languages, erotica, esoterica, and ethnology; looked at the swords resting on brackets above the fireplace; the worn boxing gloves hanging from a corner of the mantelpiece; the pistols and spears displayed in the alcoves to either side of the chimney breast; looked at the pictures on the walls, including the one of Edward, his braindamaged younger brother, who'd been an inmate at the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum for the past three years, a result of an incident five years ago when he was beaten half to death in Ceylon after Buddhist villagers took offence at his hunting of elephants; looked at the three big desks, stacked with papers, his half-written books, maps, and charts; looked at the many souvenirs of his travels, the idols and carvings, hookahs and prayer mats, knickknacks and trinkets; looked at the door in the wall opposite the windows, which led to the small dressing room where he kept his various disguises; and looked at the dark windows and his reflection in their glass.
The question came again, and he spoke it aloud: "What the hell am I to do?"
The door opened and Mrs. Angell, her expression severe and voice cold, stepped in and said, "Master Oscar says to tell you that Mr. Speke is at the Penfold Private Sanatorium."
Burton nodded, curtly.
The old woman made to leave.
"Mrs. Angell," he called.
She stopped and looked back at him.
"My language was entirely unwarranted," he mumbled, self-consciously. "My temper, too. Please accept my apologies."
She gazed at him a moment. "Very well. But you'll take your devils out of this house, is that understood? Either that, or you remove yourself from it-permanently! "
"Agreed. Did you treat Quips to more pie?"
The old dame smiled indulgently. "Yes, and an apple and some butterscotch."
"Thank you. Now, as you recommend, I think I shall take my devils out of the house."
"But you'll not allow them to guide you into trouble, if you please, Sir Richard."
"I'll do my best, Mother Angell."
She bobbed her head and departed.
Burton considered for a moment. It was too late in the evening to visit the hospital; that would have to wait until the morning, and if Speke didn't survive the night, then so be it. It was, however, never too late to visit the Cannibal Club. A few drinks with his Libertine friends would help to lift his spirits, and maybe Algernon Swinburne would be among them. Burton hadn't known the promising young poet for long but enjoyed his company immensely.
He made up his mind, changed his clothes, took another swig of brandy, and was just leaving the room when a tapping came at one of the windows. He crossed to it, a little clumsily, and saw a colourful parakeet sitting on the sill.
He pulled up the sash. A cloud of mist rolled in. The parakeet looked at him.
"Message from the stinking prime minister's office," it cackled. "You are requested to attend that prattle-brain Lord Palmerston at 10 Downing Street at nine o'clock in the morning. Please confirm, arse-face. Message ends."
Burton's brows, which usually arched low over his eyes in what appeared to be a permanent frown, shot upward. The prime minister wanted to meet with him personally? Why?
"Reply. Message begins. Appointment confirmed. I will be there. Message ends. Go."
"Bugger off!" squawked the parakeet, and launched itself from the sill.
Burton closed the window.
He was going to meet Lord Palmerston.
The Cannibal Club was located in rooms above Bartoloni's Italian Restaurant in Leicester Square.
Burton found the enigmatic and rather saturnine Richard Monckton Milnes there, in company with the diminutive Algernon Swinburne and Captain Henry Murray, Doctor James Hunt, Sir Edward Brabrooke, Thomas Bendyshe, and Charles Bradlaugh-hellraisers all.
"Burton!" cried Milnes as the explorer entered. "Congratulations!"
"On shooting that bounder Speke! Surely it was you who pulled the trigger? Please say it was so!"
Burton threw himself into a chair and lit a cigar.
"It was not."
"Ah, what a shame!" exclaimed Milnes. "I was so hoping you could tell us what it feels like to murder a man. A white man, I mean!"
"Why, yes, of course!" put in Bradlaugh. "You killed that little Arab boy on the road to Mecca, didn't you?"
Burton accepted a drink from Henry Murray.
"You know damned well I didn't!" he growled. "That bastard Stanley writes nothing but scurrilous nonsense!"
"Come now, Richard!" trilled Swinburne, in his excitable, high-pitched voice. "Don't object so! Do you not agree that murder is one of the great boundaries we must cross in order to know that we, ourselves, are truly alive?"
The famous explorer sighed and shook his head. Swinburne was youngjust twenty-four-and possessed an intuitive intelligence that appealed to the older man; but he was gullible.
"Nonsense, Algy! Don't let these Libertines mesmerise you with their misguided ideas and appallingly bad logic. They are incorrigibly perverse, especially Milnes here."
"Hah!" yelled Bendyshe from across the room. "Swinburne's as perverse as they come! He has a taste for pain, don't you know! Likes the kiss of a whip, what!"
Swinburne giggled, twitched, and snapped his fingers. As always, his movements were fast, jerky, and eccentric, as if he suffered from Saint Vitus's dance.
"It's true. I'm a follower of de Sade."
"It's a common affliction," noted Burton. "Why, I once visited a brothel in Karachi-on a research mission for Napier, you understand-"
Snorts and howls of derision came from the gathering.
– and there witnessed a man flagellated to the point of unconsciousness. He enjoyed it!"
"Delicious!" Swinburne shuddered.
"Maybe so, if your tastes run to it," agreed Burton. "However, flagellation is one thing, murder is quite another!"
Milnes sat beside Burton, leaning close.
"But, I say, Richard," he murmured, "don't you ever wonder at the sense of freedom one must feel when performing the act of murder? It is, after all, the greatest taboo, is it not? Break that and you are free of the shackles imposed by civilisation!"
"I'm no great enthusiast for the false pleasures and insidious suppressions of civilisation," said Burton. "And, in my opinion, Mrs. Grundy-our fictitious personification of all things oh so pure, polite, restrained, and conventional requires a thorough shagging; however, as much as I might rail against the constraints of English society and culture, murder is a more fundamental matter than either."
Swinburne squealed with delight. "A thorough shagging! Oh, bravo, Richard!"
Milnes nodded. "False pleasures and insidious suppressions indeed. Pleasures which enslave, suppressions which pass judgement. Where, I ask, is freedom?"
"I don't know," answered Burton. "How can one quantify so indefinite a notion as freedom?"
"By looking to nature, dear boy! Nature red in tooth and claw! One animal kills another animal. Is it found guilty? No! It remains free to do what it will, even-and, in fact, certainly-to kill again! As de Sade himself said: `Nature has not got two voices, you know, one of them condemning all day what the other commands."'
Burton emptied his glass in a single swallow.
"For sure, Darwin has demonstrated that Nature is a brutal and entirely pitiless process, but you seem to forget, Milnes, that the animal which kills is most often, in turn, itself killed by another animal, just as the murderer, in a supposedly civilised country, is hanged for his crime!"
"Then you propose an innate natural law of justice from which we can never break free, a law that transcends culture, whatever its stage of development?"
James Hunt, passing to join a conversation between Bradlaugh and Brabrooke on the other side of the room, stopped long enough to refill Burton's glass.
"Yes, I do believe some such law exists," said Burton. "I find the Hindu notion of karma more alluring than the Catholic absurdity of original sin."
"How is Isabel?" put in Bendyshe, who'd stepped across to join them.
Burton ignored the mischievous question and went on, "At least karma provides a counterbalance-a penalty or reward, if you like-to acts we actually perform and thoughts we actually think, rather than punishing us for the supposed sin of our actual existence or for a transgression against a wholly artificial dictate of so-called morality. It is a function of Nature rather than a judgement of an unproven God."
"By Jove! Stanley was correct when he wrote that you're a heathen!" mocked Bendyshe. "Burton joins with Darwin and says there is no God!"
"Actually, Darwin hasn't suggested any such thing. It is others who have imposed that interpretation upon his Origin of Species."
"`There is no God, Nature sufficeth unto herself; in no wise bath she need of an author,"' quoted Swinburne. "De Sade again."
"In many respects I consider him laughable," commented Burton, "but in that instance, I wholeheartedly agree. The more I study religions, the more I'm convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself."
He quoted his own poetry: "Man worships self his God is man; the struggling of the mortal mind to firm its model as 'twould be, the pea fect of itself to find. "
Milnes took a drag from his cigar and blew a smoke ring, which rose lazily into the air. He watched it slowly disperse and said, "But this karma business, Richard-what you are proposing is that one way or another, through some sort of entirely natural process, a murderer will receive retribution. Do you then count man's judgement-the death penalty-to be natural?"
"We are natural beings, are we not?"
"Well," interrupted Bendyshe, "I sometimes wonder about Swinburne."
It was a fair point, thought Burton, for Swinburne was a very unnaturallooking man. At just five-foot-two, he had a strangely tiny body. His limbs were small and delicate, with sloping shoulders and a very long neck upon which sat a large head made even bigger by a tousled mass of carroty-red hair standing almost at right angles to it. His mouth was weak and effeminate; his eyes huge, pale green, and dreamy.
Few poets looked so much a poet as Algernon Charles Swinburne.
"But that aside," said Bendyshe, "what if the murderer avoids the noose?"
"Guilt," proposed Burton. "A gradual but inescapable degradation of the character. A degenerative disease of the mind. Maybe a descent into madness and self-destruction."
"Or perhaps," offered Swinburne, "a tendency to mix with criminal types until the murderer is himself, inevitably, murdered."
"Well put!" agreed the famous adventurer.
"Interesting," pondered Milnes, "but, I say, we all know that murders are committed either in the heat of passion, or else with intent by an individual who's already in an advanced-if that's the appropriate word-state of mental decay. What if, though, a murder was calculated and committed by an intelligent man who performs the act only out of scientific curiosity? What if it were done only to transcend the limitations that tell us it shouldn't be done?"
"An idle motive," suggested Burton.
"Not at all, dear boy!" declared Milnes. "It's a magnificent motive! Why, the man who would undertake such an act would risk his immortal soul for science!"
"He would undoubtedly see sense and back away from the experiment," said Burton, his voice slurring slightly, "for once crossed, that barrier allows no return. However, his decision would be based on self-determined standards of behaviour rather than on any set out by civilisation or on notions of an immortal soul; for as you say, he's an intelligent man."
"It's strange," said Henry Murray, who up until now had listened in silence. "I thought that you, of all of us, would be the one most likely to approve the experiment."
"You should take my reputation with a pinch of salt."
"Must we? I rather enjoy having a devil in our midst." Swinburne grinned.
Sir Richard Francis Burton considered the susceptible young poet and wondered how to keep him out of trouble.
Burton was not a Libertine himself, but they considered him an honorary member of the caste and delighted in his knowledge of exotic cultures, where the stifling laws of civilisation were remarkable only by their seeming absence. He enjoyed drinking and debating with them, especially this evening, for it kept his mind engaged and helped to stave off the despondency that had been creeping over him since he'd returned from Bath.
By one o'clock in the morning, though, it was dragging at him again, made worse by alcohol and exhaustion, so he bid his friends farewell and left the club.
The evening was bitterly cold-unusual for September-and the roads glistened wetly. The thickening pall wrapped each gas lamp in its own golden aureole. Burton held his overcoat tight with one hand and swung his cane with the other. London rustled and murmured around him as he walked unsteadily homewards.
A velocipede chattered past. They had started to appear on the streets two years ago, these steam-driven, one-man vehicles, and were popularly known as "penny-farthings" due to their odd design, for the front wheel was nearly as tall as a man, while the back wheel was just eighteen inches in diameter.
The rider was seated high on a leather saddle, situated slightly behind the crown of the front wheel, with his feet resting in stirrups to either side, his legs held away from the piston arm and crank which pumped and spun to the left of the axle. The tiny, boxlike engine was attached to the frame behind and below the saddle; the small boiler, with its furnace, was under this, and the coal scuttle under that; the three elements arranged in a segmented arc over the top-rear section of the main wheel. As well as providing the motive power, they were also the machine's centre of gravity and, together with the engine's internal gyroscope, made the vehicle almost impossible to knock over, despite its ungainly appearance.
By far the most remarkable feature of the penny-farthing was its extraordinary efficiency. It could complete a twenty-mile journey in about an hour on just one fist-sized lump of coal. With the furnace able to hold up to four pieces and with the same number stored in the scuttle, it had a maximum range of 160 miles and could operate for about twenty hours before needing to refuel. The vehicle's main flaw, aside from the thorough shaking it meted out to the driver, was that the two slim funnels, which rose up behind the saddle, belched smoke into the miasmal atmosphere of England's capital, adding to an already bad situation. Nevertheless, the vehicles were currently all the rage and had done much to restore the public's faith in the Engineering faction of the Technologist caste, a group that had been much maligned of late after the disastrous flooding of the undersea town of Hydroham off the Norfolk coast, and a number of fatal crashes during the attempted-and ultimately abandoned-development of gas-filled airships.
Burton watched the contraption disappear into the mist.
London had transformed while he'd been in Africa. It had filled with new machines and new breeds of animal. The Engineers and Eugenicists-the main branches of the Technologist caste-seemed unstoppable, despite protests from the Libertines, who felt that art, beauty, and nobility of spirit were more essential than material progress.
The problem was that the Libertines, despite producing reams of anti Technologist propaganda, were unclear in their message. On the one hand, there were the "True Libertines," such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were basically Luddites; while on the other, there were the increasingly powerful "Rakes," whose interests ran to black magic, anarchy, sexual depravity, drug taking, meddling, and general bad behaviour, which they justified as an attempt to "transcend the limitations of the human condition." Most Libertines, Richard Monckton Milnes being a prime example, fell somewhere between the two camps, being neither as dreamily idealistic as the one faction nor as scandalously self-indulgent as the other.
As for Sir Richard Francis Burton, he wasn't sure where he fitted. Although it was the country of his birth, England had never felt like home, probably because he'd spent most of his childhood being dragged around Europe by his restless parents. He was therefore rather surprised when he returned from the Nile expedition and found that the country's current state of social instability somewhat suited him. The rapid changes, more intensely felt in the capital than elsewhere, might be confusing to the majority of the populace but he'd always regarded his own identity as rather a transient and changeable thing, so now he felt an odd sort of empathy with the fluctuating nature of British culture.
As he walked, he slowly became aware of a tapping noise from somewhere above and realised that he'd been hearing it on and off since leaving the club. He peered up and around but saw nothing.
He continued his trek home, listening, and, yes, there it was again. Was he being followed? He looked back, but there was no suggestion of anyone on his heels until a policeman started to trail along behind him, his attention attracted by the lone, obviously rather drunk man's brutal features. After five minutes or so, the constable drew closer, saw that Burton wore the clothes of a gentleman, hesitated, then abandoned the chase.
The explorer crossed Charing Cross Road and entered a long, badly lit side street. His foot hit a discarded bottle that spun into the gutter with a musical tinkle. Something large flapped overhead and he looked up in time to see a huge Eugenicist-bred swan pass by, dragging a box kite behind it through the mist. A man's white face-an indistinct blur-looked down from the kite before it vanished over the rooftops. A faint voice reached Burton's ears but whatever it was the man had shouted was muffled by the water-laden air.
Last year, Speke and Grant had used the same form of transportation to make their way to the Nyanza, following the old route. It had taken a fraction of the time required by Burton's expedition. They'd set up camp in Kazeh, a small town some hundred and fifty miles south of the great lake, and here John Speke had made one of his characteristic errors of judgement by failing to properly guard his birds. They'd been eaten by lions. Without them he couldn't circumnavigate the lake, couldn't ascertain whether it was the source of the great river, and couldn't prove Burton wrong.
A few yards farther down the road, a man shuffled from the shadows of a doorway. He was a coarse-featured individual clad in canvas trousers and shirt with a rust-coloured waistcoat and a cloth cap. There were fire marks-red welts-on his face and thick forearms caused by hours spent stoking a forge.
"Can I 'elp you, mate?" he growled. "Maybe relieve you of wha'ever loose change is weighin' down yet pockits?"
Burton looked at him.
The man backed away so suddenly that his heels struck the doorstep and he sat down heavily.
"Sorry, fella!" he mumbled. "Mistook you fer somebody else, I did!"
The explorer snorted scornfully and moved on. He entered a network of narrow alleys-dark, dangerous, and sordid-a dismal tentacle of poverty reaching far out of the East End into the centre of the city. Mournful windows gaped from the sides of squalid houses. Inarticulate shouts came from some of them-occasionally the sound of blows, screams, and weeping-but hopeless silence came from most.
It occurred to him that the depths of London felt remarkably similar to the remotest regions of Africa.
He came to a junction, turned left, tripped, and stumbled; his shin banging against a discarded crate and his trouser leg catching on a protruding nail and tearing. He spat out an oath and kicked the crate away. A rat scuttled along the side of the pavement.
Leaning against a lamppost, Burton rubbed his eyes. The taste of brandy burned uncomfortably at the back of his throat. He noticed a flier pasted to the post and read it:
Work disciplines your spirit
Work develops your character
Work strengthens your soul
Do not allow machines to do your work!
Pushing himself away, he walked along the alley and turned yet another corner-he wasn't sure where he was but knew he was proceeding in the right general direction-and found himself at the end of a long, straight lane, its worn cobbles shining beneath the haggard light of a single lamp. It was bordered by high and featureless redbrick walls, the sides of warehouses. The far end opened onto what looked to be a main thoroughfare. He could vaguely see the front of a shop, possibly a butcher's, but when he tried to read the sign over the window, a velocipede clattered past it, leaving a swirling wreath of smoke that further obscured the lettering.
Burton moved on, trying to avoid pools of stinking urine, his shoes squelching in patches of mud and worse, kicking against refuse.
A litter-crab came clanking into view by the shop, its eight thick mechanical legs thudding against the road surface, the twenty-four thin arms on its belly darting this way and that, skittering back and forth over the cobbles, snatching up rubbish and throwing it through the machine's maw into the furnace within.
The crab creaked and rattled past the end of the alley and, as it did so, its siren wailed a warning. A few seconds later, it let out a deafening hiss as it ejected hot cleansing steam from the two downward-pointing funnels at its rear.
The automated cleaner vanished from sight as a tumultuous wall of white vapour boiled into the passage. Burton stopped and took a few steps backward, waiting for it to disperse. It billowed toward him, extending hot coils that slowed and became still, hanging in the air as they cooled.
Someone entered the street, their weirdly elongated shadow angling through the white cloud; a figure writ dark, skeletal, and horrific by the distortion. Sudden flashes of light illuminated the roiling mist, as if it were a miniature storm. Burton waited for the shadow to shrink, to be sucked into the person to whom it belonged when he-for surely it must be a manemerged from the vapour.
It didn't shrink.
It wasn't a shadow.
Possibly, it wasn't even a man.
The steam parted and from it sprang a bizarre apparition: a massively long-legged shape-like a carnival stilt-walker-a long, dark cloak flapping from its hunched shoulders, bolts of lightning crackling around its body and head.
Burton retreated hastily until his back brought up against the wall. He blinked rapidly and licked his lips.
Was it human, this thing? Its head was large, black, and shiny, with an aura of blue flame crawling around it. Red eyes peered at him maliciously. White teeth shone in a lipless grin.
The creature stalked forward, bent, its talonlike hands flexing, and Burton saw that his first impression was accurate: the thing walked on twofoot-high stilts.
Its lanky body was clad in a skintight white scaly suit that glittered in the dim light of the single guttering gas lamp. Something circular glowed on its chest and emitted bursts of sparks and ribbons of lightning that snaked over the thing's long limbs.
"Burton!" the apparition croaked. "Richard Francis bloody Burton!"
It suddenly pounced on him and a hand slashed sideways, slapping hard against his right ear, sending him reeling. His top hat went spinning into a puddle. He dropped his cane.
"I told you once to stay out of it!" snapped the thing. "You didn't listen!"
All of a sudden, Burton felt icily sober.
Fingers dug into his hair and yanked his head up. He felt an agonisingly powerful static charge coursing through his body. His arms and legs twitched spasmodically.
Red eyes glared into his.
"I'll not tell you again. Leave me alone!"
"W-what?" gasped Burton.
"Just stay out of it! The affair is none of your damned business!"
"Don't play the innocent! I don't want to kill you, but I swear to you, if you don't keep your nose out of it, I'll break your fucking neck!"
"I have no idea what you're talking about!" protested Burton.
His head was shaken violently, causing his teeth to clack together.
"I'm talking about you organising forces against me! It's not what you're meant to be doing! Your destiny lies elsewhere. Do you understand?"
The creature rammed its forearm into Burton's face.
"I said, do you understand?"
"Then I'll spell it out for you," growled the stilt-man. Dragging Burton around, it slammed him against the wall, drew back its arm, and sent a fist crashing into the explorer's mouth.
– you're supposed-"
– to do!"
Burton sagged back against the bricks. He mumbled through split lips, "How can I possibly know what I'm supposed to do?"
The fingers in his hair jerked him up until he was looking directly into the thing's eyes, which stared down, inches from his own. They burned redly, and Burton realised that his attacker was completely insane.
Blue flame leaped from the thing's head and licked at the explorer's brow, scorching his skin.
"You are supposed to marry Isabel and be sent from one fucking miserable consulship to another. Your career is supposed to peak in three years when you debate the Nile question with Speke and the silly sod shoots himself dead. You are supposed to write books and die."
Burton braced his legs against the wall.
"What the hell are you babbling about?" he demanded, in a stronger voice. "The debate was cancelled. Speke shot himself yesterday-but he's not dead!"
The creature's eyes widened.
"No!" it whispered. "No!" It gritted its teeth and snarled, "I'm a historian! I know what happened. It was 1864 not 1861. I know-"
A look of bemusement passed over its gaunt, horrible features.
"God damn it! Why does it have to be so complicated?" it whispered to itself. "Maybe if I kill you? But if the death of just one person has already done all this-?"
Burton, feeling the fingers loosening, took his chance. He jerked his head free, shoved his shoulder into his attacker's stomach, then threw himself sideways.
The apparition teetered back to the opposite wall. It clutched at it for balance and glared at Burton as he regained his footing. They stood facing each other.
"Listen to me, you bastard!" snapped the creature. "For your own good, next time you see me, don't come near!"
"I don't know you!" objected Burton. "And, believe me, if I never see you again, I'll not regret it one iota!"
Lightning exploded from the apparition's chest and danced across the ground. The stilt-man cried out in agony, almost falling.
Suddenly, its wild eyes dimmed and Burton saw a brief glimmer of reason in them. It looked down at itself, then at him, and in low tones said, "The irony is that I'm running out of time. You're in my way, and you're making the situation much worse."
"What situation? Explain!" snapped the explorer.
The uncanny, spindly figure stepped forward and the irises of its eyes narrowed to pinpricks.
"Marry the bitch, Burton. Settle down. Become consul in Fernando Po, Brazil, Damascus, and wherever the fuck else they send you. Write your damned books. But, above all, leave me alone! Do you understand? Leave me the fuck alone!"
It crouched low, glared at him, and suddenly straightened its legs, shooting vertically into the air.
Burton twisted his head to look up. His assailant soared high above the top of the warehouses, and, in midair, vanished.
Die, my dear doctor! That' s the last thing I shall do!
Great Scott, man!" exclaimed Lord Palmerston. "What have you been up to now?"
Burton lowered himself gingerly into the chair before the prime minister's desk. His body was bruised; his right eye blackened; his lips cut and puffy.
"Just an accident, sir. Nothing to worry about."
"You look perfectly hideous!"
You're a fine one to talk! thought Burton.
For the past two years, Palmerston had been receiving Eugenicist lifeextension treatments. Though seventy-seven years old, he currently had a life expectancy of about a hundred and thirty. To match this, he'd received a cosmetic overhaul. The loose skin of his face had been tightened, the fatty deposits removed, and the discolorations eliminated. Paralysing toxins had been regularly injected into the wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes and mouth, smoothing them out and giving his face the clean contours of a young man-or, thought Burton, of a waxwork, because, in his opinion, the prime minister appeared to have wandered out of Madam Toussaud's. There was nothing natural about him; he was a shiny mockery of himself, a freakish caricature, his face too white and masklike, his lips too red, his sideburns too bushy, his curly hair too long and black, his midnight blue velvet suit too tight and foppish, his eau de cologne too liberally applied, and his movements too mannered.
"I say!" declared the prime minister. "It's not the first time you've been knocked around, is it? I remember when you came back from Abyssinia with those dreadful wounds on your face. You seem to have a nose for trouble, Burton."
"I think it's more a case of trouble having a nose for me," muttered the adventurer.
"Hmm. Be that as it may, when I look back over your history I see one disaster after another."
Palmerston leafed through a report on his desktop. The desk was an extremely big, heavy affair of carved mahogany. Burton noticed with amusement that, just below its lip, there ran around it a horizontal band decoratively carved with scenes of a highly erotic nature.
There were not many items on the desk: a blotting pad, a silver pen in its holder, a letter rack, a carafe of water and a slender glass, and, to the prime minister's left, a strange device of brass and glass which sporadically emitted a slight hiss and a puff of vapour. Burton could make neither head nor tail of it, though he saw that part of the mechanism-a glass tube about as thick as his wrist-disappeared into the desk.
"You served under General Napier in the East India Army and undertook intelligence missions for him, I believe?"
"That's correct. I speak Hindustani, among other languages, and I make up well as a native. I suppose it made me a logical choice."
"How many languages do you speak?"
"Fluently? Twenty-four, so far, plus a few dialects."
"Good gracious! Remarkable!"
Palmerston pushed on through the pages. Burton found it astonishingand ominous-that so much had been written about him.
"Napier speaks highly of you. His successor, Pringle, does not."
"Pringle is a cretinous toad."
"Is he, indeed? Is he? Bless my soul, I shall have to be a little more rigorous in my choice of appointments, then, shan't l?"
Burton coughed lightly. "My apologies," he said. "I spoke out of turn."
"According to these reports, speaking out of turn is another of your specialisms. Who was Colonel Corsellis?"
"Is, sir-he still lives. He was acting CO of the Corps when I met him."
Palmerston tried to raise his brows but they remained motionless on his taut face. He read aloud:
"Here lies the body of Colonel Corsellis,
The rest of the fellow, I fancy, in hell is."
The corner of Burton's mouth twitched. He'd forgotten that youthful doggerel.
"To be fair, he did ask me to write something about him."
"I'm sure he was delighted with the result," replied Palmerston, witheringly. His fingers tapped impatiently on the desk. He looked at Burton thoughtfully. "You were on active service with the 18th Bombay Native Infantry from '42 to '49. It appears to have been seven years of recurring insubordination and frequent sick leave."
"All the men fell ill, sir. India, at that time, was not conducive to good health. As for the insubordination-I was young. I have no other excuse."
Palmerston nodded. "We all commit errors of judgement in our youth. For most of us, they are forgiven and relegated to the past, where they belong. You, however, seem to have a rather stubborn albatross slung around your neck. I refer, of course, to your misjudged investigation in Karachi and the rumour that has attached to it."
"You mean my report concerning male brothels?"
"General Napier was concerned that a great number of British troops were visiting them. He asked me to find out exactly how corrupting the establishments and the practices therein might be. I did my job. I found out."
"You probed too far, according to Pringle."
"An interesting choice of words."
"His, Burton, not mine."
"Indeed. I have often thought that when a man selects one word over another he often reveals far more of himself than he intended."
"And what, in your opinion, does Pringle reveal?"
"The man maliciously besmirched my reputation. He accused me of indulging in the acts of depravity I was sent to investigate. His hounding of me amounted to an irrational obsession which, I believe, suggests but one thing."
"His ill-repressed desire to perform those very acts himself"
"That's quite an accusation."
"It's not an accusation, it's a supposition, and one made in a private interview. Compare that to the frenzied objections he made, in public, to my entirely imagined behaviour. His allegations have haunted my career ever since. He almost ruined me."
Palmerston nodded and turned a page.
"You were subsequently passed over for a position as chief interpreter?"
"In favour of a man who spoke but one language aside from his own, yes."
"That seems rather absurd."
"I'm pleased that someone finally recognises the fact."
"You sound bitter."
Burton didn't answer.
"So you left the East India Company army on medical grounds?"
"I was sick with malaria, dysentery, and ophthalmia."
"And syphilis," added Palmerston.
"Thank you for reminding me. The doctors didn't think I'd live. For that matter, neither did I."
"And your health now?"
"The malaria flares up now and again. A course of quinine usually quells it."
"Or a bottle of gin or two?"
Another sheet of tightly written notes was turned aside.
"You returned to England in 1850 on sick leave, then prepared for your now famous pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina."
"That's correct, Prime Minister. May I ask why we're reviewing my history?"
Lord Palmerston cast him a baleful look. "All in good time, Burton."
The old man surveyed the next page, then, flicking a quick glance of embarrassment at the explorer, reached into a drawer and retrieved a pair of pince-nez spectacles, which he ruefully clipped to the bridge of his nose. Their lenses were of smoked blue glass.
He cleared his throat. "Why did you do it?"
"The pilgrimage? I was curious. Bored. Restless. I wanted to make a name for myself."
"You certainly achieved that. You completed the entire journey in disguise, as a native, speaking only Arabic?"
"Yes, as Abdullah the dervish. I wanted to be treated as one of the brethren, not as a guest. It has long been my view that an outsider, in any culture, is offered but a fragment of the truth, and that carefully dressed for his consumption, to boot. I desired authenticity."
"And you killed a boy to avoid being exposed as a non-Muslim?"
"I am, it seems, accused of that crime on a daily basis. Only last night, the question was asked of me for the umpteenth time. Did I kill a boy? No, Prime Minister, I did not. I am not guilty of murder; not of a boy nor of a woman nor of a man nor even of a dog."
"Are you capable?"
Burton sat back in his chair, surprised. This theme of murder arising again, so soon after the conversation at the Cannibal Club! It was an extraordinary coincidence and it agitated the superstitious part of his character.
"Am I capable of cold-blooded murder? I think not. Might I kill in the heat of battle or in self-defence? Of course. I may have done so in Berbera; in such circumstances it's impossible to know the outcome of your shots or the cuts of your sword."
"And what if you were in a position of authority and were required to send a man to his almost certain death?"
"I would fulfill my responsibilities."
Lord Palmerston nodded as if satisfied. He reached into his waistcoat pocket, withdrew a snuff tin, and sprinkled a small heap of the fine powder onto the side of his right hand at the base of his thumb. This he raised to his nose and snorted.
He sniffed and turned another page. Burton noticed that the prime minister's fingernails were carefully manicured and coated with clear varnish.
"It was in '55," continued Palmerston, "the Berbera incident. Lieutenant John Hanning Speke was one of the men who accompanied you?"
"Incidentally, I enquired after him last night. He's in the Penfold Private Sanatorium. He shot half his face off; they don't expect him to live."
Burton nodded, his countenance iron hard. "I know."
Palmerston regarded him. "Another enemy?"
"Apparently so. Are you?"
If Palmerston was shocked or surprised at the brazen question, he didn't show it. Mind you, mused Burton, the man was incapable of showing anything.
"Am I your enemy? No, I am not."
"That's encouraging, anyway. Yes, Prime Minister, Lieutenant Speke did indeed accompany me into Somalia. I got a spear through the face and he was also injured. One of our companions, Lieutenant Stroyan, was killed. The following year, after brief service in the Crimea, I organised an expedition to central Africa in search of the source of the Nile. Speke accompanied me and afterwards he betrayed me. The press made the most of it and a confrontation between us was engineered. It was due to take place yesterday at the Bath Assembly Rooms. It didn't. So, that's the history done with. Perhaps now we can move on to my reason for being here?"
Palmerston's mouth opened and a mirthless cackle sounded, though his lips didn't smile.
"Oh my goodness!" he exclaimed. "You are an impatient man!"
"I don't deny it. And to be perfectly frank, Prime Minister, I have a hangover and I badly need a piss, so I'd appreciate it if we could bypass the niceties and get to the core of the matter."
Palmerston banged his right hand up and down on the desk, threw his head back, and let loose a rapid sawing noise, which Burton-phenomenal interpreter though he was-could only guess was laughter. It rasped rhyth mically for too long, passing quickly from genuine to affected, and developed a strange sibilance which, for a bizarre moment, made it seem as if the prime minister had developed a leak and was rapidly deflating.
Then Burton realised that the increasingly loud hiss was coming not from the man opposite but from the odd device on his desk. He turned his eyes to it in time to see the thing suddenly shake frantically. The needle of a gauge on its side swept over into a red-marked segment and, with a sound like a large bung being pulled from a container, the mechanism gave one last jerk and became silent and motionless. A wisp of steam floated from its top. The needle sank back to the left.
Palmerston closed his mouth, looked at the contraption, grunted, reached across, and flipped a switch. A small door swung open and a canister popped out into the prime minister's hand. He twisted the lid from it and pulled a pale blue sheet of paper from within. He read the note and nodded, then looked up at Burton and announced: "You are approved!"
"How nice," said Burton. "By whom? For what?"
"Why, by Buckingham Palace! Our monarch is offering you a job!"
For once, Burton was at a loss for words. His jaw hung loosely.
Palmerston's face stretched sideways around the mouth in what might have been an attempted grin. It was not a pretty sight.
"That's why I called you here, Burton. The palace has taken an interest in you. It has been mooted that, with your rather unusual range of skills and-shall we say forceful?-personality, you can do the Empire a unique service; something no other man can offer. That's why this position has been created, specifically for you."
Still Burton said nothing. His mind was racing, grappling with this entirely unexpected development-and also with the notion that someone at Buckingham Palace might somehow be listening in on this conversation.
"I must confess," continued Palmerston, "that you presented me with a quandary. I knew I had to do something with you but I had no idea what. Your talent for making enemies concerned me; I suspected that whatever post I gave you, you'd quickly become a liability. It was suggested, by one of my colleagues, that I should bury you in some remote consulate. Fernando Po was top of the list-do you know it?"
A nod. The only response Burton could manage.
Marry the bitch. Settle down. Become consul in Fernando Po, Brazil, Damascus, and wherever the fuck else they send you.
The words blazed through his mind.
"Who knows?" he jerked intently.
"Who knows about this interview, the job, the consulate?"
"About the job, just myself and the palace." Palmerston tapped the copper and glass apparatus. "We have communicated privately on the matter. About you being here? The palace, myself, my private secretary, the guards on the door, the butler, any of the household staff who might have seen you come in. About the consulate? The palace, myself, and Lord Russell, who suggested you for the position. Why?"
Burton knew what Lord John Russell, the foreign secretary, looked like. He was an elderly, bald-headed, broad-faced man who in no way resembled the apparition of last night.
"I think," said Burton slowly, "there's the distinct possibility that either the government or the royal household has a spy in its midst."
Palmerston became very still. His Adam's apple rose and fell.
"Explain," he said softly.
Rapidly, without embellishment, Burton recounted the attack of the previous evening. Palmerston listened attentively and, for all the movement he made, he might have become the waxwork he so closely resembled.
When Burton had finished, the prime minister asked him to describe the apparition in greater detail.
The reply came: "He was tall and emaciated with limbs long, thin, but wiry and strong. His head was encased in a large black, shiny, globular helmet around which a blue flame burned. From within the headgear red eyes, insane, glared at me. The face was skull-like: the cheeks sunken, the nose a blade, the mouth a slit. He wore a white skintight costume that resembled fish scales in texture. A lengthy black cloak with a white lining hung from his shoulders and a flat, circular lamplike affair was affixed to his chest, shining with a reddish light and emitting sparks. His hands were bony and talonlike. The feet and calves were encased by tight boots from which a springlike mechanism projected, attached to two-foot-high stilts."
"When I was on the pilgrimage," he continued quietly, "there was much talk of evil djan-"
"Djan?" interposed Palmerston.
"Sorry. It's the plural of `djinni,' the evil spirits that supposedly haunt the deserts. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent man, so, of course, I discounted the talk as mere superstition. However, if you were to tell me that last night I came face to face with one such, I might believe you."
"Perhaps you did," countered Palmerston. He glanced down as the instrument on his desk trembled and emitted a puff of steam. "Have you ever heard of Spring Heeled Jack?"
Burton looked surprised. "That never occurred to me!"
Spring Heeled Jack was a bogeyman, a mythical spook used by mothers to scare naughty children into submission: "Behave! Or Spring Heeled Jack will come for you!"
"So a spy dressed as a character from folklore?" Burton reflected. "But why? And why attack me? What interest has he in Lord Russell's suggestion that you make me a consul?"
"He may be rather more than a spy," suggested Palmerston. "Captain Burton, I want you to talk to Detective Inspector William Trounce of Scotland Yard. In 1840, when he was a constable, he was present at the assassination. He claimed to have seen this jumping Jack thing at the scene, and, despite opposition from his superiors, still maintains that the creature is a fact, rather than an illusion caused by panic or hysteria, as others have asserted. It nearly cost him his career. For a decade afterwards, he was the laughing stock of the Yard and only rose to his current position through dogged determination and hard work. You have your albatross; Spring Heeled Jack is his."
Burton spread his arms in a shrug. "Talk to him to what end?"
"As a start to your second assignment. I spoke of a job. Our monarch wants to commission you as-for want of a better word-an `agent.' It's a unique position; you will be required to investigate matters which, perhaps, lie outside of police jurisdiction, or which, due to their nature, require a rather more singular approach than Scotland Yard can offer. You will answer to Buckingham Palace and to me and you will have the authority to command the police when necessary. We live in tumultuous times, Burton. The Technologists are pushing ethical boundaries and the Libertines are pushing moral boundaries. Both castes are too powerful and both have extremist factions. The palace is concerned that science is altering our culture too much and too fast and without proper periods of reflection and consultation. For the good of the Empire, we require someone who can unveil secrets and make snap judgements; someone fearless and independent; someone like you."
"I'm honoured, sir," responded Burton, and he meant it.
"It's not an order. If you don't want the commission, you can have the consulate instead."
"I want the commission, Prime Minister."
"Good. I have an initial assignment for you, but, as I said, I want you to consider this Spring Heeled Jack affair as a second. If there is indeed a spy within the government or at the palace, unmask him! As for the original mission: find out what these are and where they are coming from-"
The prime minister pulled a sheet of paper from his desk drawer and slid it toward Burton. On it there was a rough sketch, in pencil, of a squat, misshapen man with a snoutlike jaw, his face resembling that of a vicious dog.
"You want me to find the artist?" asked Burton.
"No. I know who the artist is-a Frenchman named Paul Gustave Dore. He's buried himself somewhere in the East End where he's been surreptitiously sketching scenes of poverty-God knows why; you know how these artists are, with their absurd notions of the nobility of the poor and whatnot. No, I want you to find the man-wolves."
Burton looked up, puzzled. "Man-wolves? You think this is sketched from life?"
"It is. The royal secretary made it known to Dore that the monarch was interested in his work. In response, the artist has been posting some of his sketches to the palace. This was among them. Look on the back."
Burton turned the sketch over and saw words scrawled in an erratic hand: Your Majesty, there are loups-garous at large in the Cauldron and the people here are greatly afraid. There have been deaths and abductions every night, far beyond that which is usual for this part of the city. The populace hate the police and will not consult them. I have seen one of the loups-garous with nay own eyes. This sketch depicts the thing I saw. It tore out a man's heart as I watched and made away with his boy.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed Burton.
"Personally," said Palmerston, "I think Dore has fallen in with the opium crowd and this is nothing but a drug-fuelled delusion. Maybe you can find out. With your ability to disguise yourself and adopt accents, I thought maybe you could penetrate where the police fear to tread; find this Dore chap and speak to him."
With a rattle and a whistle of steam, a second canister popped up into the contraption on the prime minister's desk. He took it, opened it, read the note, and offered it to Burton.
Burton looked at the numbers scrawled on the paper.
For the second time that morning, his jaw went slack.
Last night's mist had condensed into a fog, a sickly sulphurous blanket which scratched at Burton's eyes as he waved down a hansom cab along Whitehall. It was one of the new vehicles, pulled by a steam-horse. These four-wheeled engines bore a passing resemblance to the famous Stephenson's Rocket but were a fraction of the size, being about five feet long, three feet wide, and three feet tall, with a thin funnel soaring a full ten feet straight upward. From each end of the front axle two thin, curved steering rods arced up and back to the driver, who sat on his "box" on the top of the cab, which was harnessed behind the engine. Levers on the handgrips controlled the speed and the brakes.
Despite the height of the funnel, smoke still had a tendency to drift into the driver's face, so he wore goggles and a leather cap for protection.
Burton climbed in and gazed out of the window as the hansom chugged away from the curb. The ghostlike forms of London's inhabitants scuttled through the pea-souper, fading in and out of sight as if their very existence was questionable.
His hangover had vanished entirely. He felt strong and positive; he possessed a sense of purpose at last.
Palmerston's final words, though, still echoed in his ears: "This is not a job for a married man, you understand?"
Burton did understand.
Isabel would not.
Penfold Private Sanatorium, which was run by the Sisterhood of Noble Benevolence, was located in St. John's Wood, off Edgware Road.
The hansom drew up near the hospital's entrance and Burton disembarked, handing his fare up to the driver. He mounted the steps and entered the building.
The nurse at the reception desk glanced up at him.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Your poor face! But I'm sorry, sir, we don't treat minor wounds here! Can't you see your own doctor? You probably only need your cuts cleaned and some cream on that black eye."
Burton gave a slight smile. "Actually, Sister, I'm here to visit Lieutenant John Speke. Which room is he in?"
She looked surprised. "He's no longer here, sir. They took him last night."
"Took him? Who took him? Where?"
"The-um-his-" She stalled; looked confused. "His family?"
"You're asking me?"
"No! No, sir. I mean to say-yes, his family took him, I believe."
Burton frowned. "Come now! You believe? What's going on?"
"Are you related to Lieutenant Speke, sir?"
"My name is Richard Burton. Perhaps you've heard of me?"
"Oh, I see. Yes, sir, I have. It's that-the thing is-well, the lieutenant was removed from the sanatorium last night while Sister Raghavendra was on duty and she neglected to do the proper paperwork. We have no record of who came for him or where they took him."
"The man was on his death bed! How on earth could she allow his removal without due procedure?"
"She-she said she was taken ill and can't properly recall events, sir."
"Is that so? At what time did this occur?"
"About four in the morning. There were very few staff on duty at the time."
"And Speke was still alive?"
"Yes, sir. Though, in all honesty-and I'm sorry to say this-but it's unlikely that he survived being taken from our care."
"I'd like to see the nurse-Sister Raghavendra-if you please."
"I'm afraid she's not here. She was suspended from duty and sent home. She was very upset."
"Where does she live?"
"Oh, I can't tell you that, Mr. Burton. It's against policy."
"To hell with your policies, Sister! They obviously count for nothing!"
The nurse's eyes widened in shock. "Sir!"
Burton pulled his wallet from his pocket and took out a folded document. He showed it to the nurse.
"Look at this signature, young lady. Do you recognise it?"
"No. Yes. It's-my goodness!-it's the same as the one on pound notes!"
"Now read this paragraph here," he instructed, indicating a short block of text with his finger.
She did so, pursed her lips, and nodded.
"Very well, sir. It seems I have no choice. Sister Raghavendra lives here-" She scribbled an address onto a sheet of paper and handed it to him.
"Thank you," he said, and turned to leave, satisfied with the effectiveness of the document Palmerston had issued to him that morning.
"Sir Richard!" she called after him.
He looked back.
She smiled. "Rub castor oil around your eye. It will reduce the bruising."
He winked at her.
Outside, Burton found the hansom still standing at the curb. He hailed the driver: "Hi, cabbie, still here?"
"Oh aye, sir. Thought it best to wait for the fares to come to me, 'stead o' drivin' through this stinker lookin' for 'em!"
"Can you take me to 3 Bayham Street, near Mornington Crescent?"
"Wiv me eyes closed, sir-which in this 'ere mess o' fog is just as well. 'Op in!"
Burton settled on the seat and closed the door. He rubbed his itchy eyes as the steam-horse growled and the cabin lurched into motion. His skin felt grimy, thinly coated with soot and other pollutants. He wondered whether Limehouse had been evacuated. During the previous fog-two weeks agotoxic gasses had settled into the Thames basin and a great mob of sailors, criminals, drug addicts, and illegal immigrants-mainly Lascars, Dacoits, Chinamen, Africans, and Irish refugees-had swept into Whitechapel, where they'd rioted for three days. When the fog cleared, and they returned to their hovels and opium dens, it was found that they'd piled hundreds of corpsesasphyxiation victims-along Commercial Road. With the risk of a cholera epidemic and a boom in the already unmanageable rat population, the government had called in the army to clear and burn the bodies. Ever since, the newspapers had been calling for an all-out assault on Limehouse, demanding that it be cleared and razed to the ground. This, thought Burton, was unlikely to happen. The opium trade needed Limehouse and, he suspected, there were powerful forces in the Empire that needed the opium trade.
It took far longer to reach Mornington Crescent than it should have; the cabbie took two wrong turns and, when he finally delivered his passenger to Bayham Street, he seemed beside himself with embarrassment.
"Never done that 'afore, I swears to you, guv'nor!" he moaned. "As sure as me name's Montague Penniforth, I knows every nook and cranny of this ere city! But this `particular' has befuddled me senses! I can 'ardly think straight, let alone guide this smokin' horse in the right direction!"
Burton knew what the man meant; some ingredient in the fog was causing him to feel slightly dizzy too, which, after a hard night's drinking, was the last thing he needed.
"Don't worry yourself about it, Mr. Penniforth," he said. "Here's a couple of bob extra. Why don't you pack up for the morning? Go spend some time with your missus!"
"Cor blimey!" Penniforth coughed. "You must be jokin'! Daisy would have me guts for garters if I turned up on the doorstep 'afore midnight. She can't stand the sight o' me!"
Burton laughed. "Wait here, then, if you don't mind. I shan't be long and I promise you another shilling!"
"Me lucky day!" The cabbie grinned. "I'll 'ave a draw on me pipe while I wait; get some decent fumes into me lungs!"
Burton left Montague Penniforth cleaning out the bowl of a filthy old cherrywood and crossed the pavement to peer at the house numbers. Number 3 was a four-storey terrace. A dim glow emanated from the fanlight window above the front door. He yanked at the bellpull and heard a distant jangle.
After a minute, the portal was opened by an elderly woman in mourning dress, her face concealed behind a weeping veil of black crepe.
"Yes?" she whispered. There was an edge of suspicion to her voice, for though her visitor was obviously a gentleman, his face was cut, bruised, and barbarous in aspect.
"My apologies, ma'am," said Burton, courteously. "Do you have a Sister Raghavendra here?"
"Yes, sir. On the third floor. Are you from the sanatorium?"
"I've just come from there, yes," he replied. It wasn't quite an answer to the question she'd asked but she didn't seem to notice and appeared to be mollified by his deep, polite, and melodious voice.
"If you wish to see her, sir, I should act as chaperone," she noted, in her frail tones.
"That will be acceptable, thank you."
"Pray, come in out of the fog, then. You can wait in the hallway."
Burton ran the soles of his shoes over the iron boot-scraper on the doorstep then stepped into the dingy hall, the walls of which were crowded with framed paintings and photographs, display plates and crucifixes. The landlady closed the door behind him and took a small silver finger-bell from her sleeve. In response to its tinkling ring, a sturdy young girl hurried out from the parlour. Flour powdered her hands, forearms, and nose. She gave a clumsy curtsey.
"Run up to Sister Raghavendra, Polly, and tell her she has a visitor; a Mr.-?"
"Captain Burton." He always preferred to use his military rank; "Sir Richard" sounded a mite pretentious.
"A Captain Burton. You may advise Sister Raghavendra that I will escort the gentleman up to her sitting room if she wishes to receive him."
The maid thumped up the stairs and out of sight.
"An ungainly girl but she serves me well. My name is Mrs. Emily Wheeltapper, Captain. My late husband was Captain Anthony Wheeltapper of the 17th Lancers. He fell at Balaclava. I have been in mourning these seven years since. He was a fine man."
"My sympathy, ma'am."
"Will you take a cup of tea, Captain?"
"Please don't trouble yourself. My business will be brief."
"Is the poor girl in difficulty? She came home in tears this morning. Has something happened at the sanatorium?"
"That's what I'm here to find out, Mrs. Wheeltapper."
Polly's heavy tread thundered down the stairs. "She says to come on up, Mum," she reported.
"Thank you, Polly. Now back to the kitchen with you. Those scones won't cook themselves. Follow me, please, Captain Burton."
The old widow slowly ascended, followed patiently by her visitor.
On the third landing, they were met by Sister Raghavendra. She was, Burton guessed, in her midtwenties. She was also extremely beautiful, with dark almond-shaped eyes and dusky skin. Her nose was small and straight; her lips full and sensual, with a squarish shape more often found in South Americans; and her black hair, though pinned up, was obviously very long and lustrous.
His nostrils detected the scent of jasmine.
She reminded Burton of a Persian girl he'd once bedded, and a thrill of desire rippled through him as her eyes met his.
"You are Captain Burton?" she asked, in a soft, slightly accented voice. "You are here about Lieutenant Speke, I suppose? Come into my sitting room, please."
He followed her into a small and sparsely ornamented chamber and sat in the armchair to which she gestured. She and Mrs. Wheeltapper settled onto the sofa.
He noticed a statuette of Ganesha on the mantelpiece; a nurse's headdress had been thrown carelessly onto a table; a small bottle of laudanum on a dresser.
Sister Raghavendra sat with her back held very straight and her hands folded gracefully on her lap. She was still in her work clothes: a floor-length, high-collared, and long-sleeved pale grey dress over which she wore a short white jacket.
"With Mrs. Wheeltapper's permission," said Burton gently, "I would like to ask you about the events of last night, when John Speke was removed from the sanatorium."
The old widow patted her lodger's hand. "Is that all right with you, my dear?"
"Perfectly," answered the nurse, with a trace of imperiousness in her voice. "I will answer any question as best I can, Captain Burton."
"I'm happy to hear that. Perhaps you could tell me what occurred?"
"I'll tell you as much as I know. I came on duty at midnight. My shift is from twelve until six. I was assigned to Lieutenant Speke, my duty being simply to sit with him and monitor his condition. Forgive me for being blunt, Captain, but he wasn't expected to live for long; the left side of his face and head were extremely badly damaged. The presence of a nurse was not entirely necessary in a medical sense, for there was nothing that could be done to save him, but it is our practice never to leave a dying man alone in case he recovers himself in his final moments to make a statement or request or confession."
"I passed four hours reading to him and was then interrupted by a man who entered the room."
She paused and put a hand up to her throat, took a breath, and continued, "I cannot describe him. I cannot see him in my mind's eye. I remember-I remember only his soft tread as he came in, then-I-I-"
Droplets of sweat appeared on Sister Raghavendra's forehead. She bit her lip and pulled at her collar.
"Did I faint?" she asked. "But why should I have done so?"
"What is your next clear memory?" asked Burton.
"I was-was, um-I was inside the entrance by the reception desk, wheeling a trolley past it, and, somehow, I felt satisfied that Lieutenant Speke was in good hands."
"Well, I thought his family's but-I-I don't know!" She lowered her face into her hands.
Mrs. Wheeltapper stroked her tenant's arm and crooned wordlessly.
Sir Richard Francis Burton had not only listened to the girl's words; he'd also been absorbing her accent, and with the phenomenal skill that was his, had identified her-or at least her family-as native to the Mysore region of Southern India; specifically, to the Bangalore district.
He now spoke to her in her own dialect: "You have fallen under a spell, young lady. I recognise the signs, as you, a nurse, would recognise the symptoms of an illness. The presence of a newly opened bottle of laudanum on your dresser suggests to me that you are suffering from a headache. This further leads me to believe that you've experienced a traumatic shock and the memory of it has been sealed within the depths of your mind. Believe me when I say that it will do you no good if it remains there, hidden away like a festering cancer. It must be sought out, exposed, and acknowledged; confronted, subdued, and defeated. Sister Raghavendra, I possess the power of magnetic influence. If you permit it-if you place yourself under my protection and send this worthy old woman away-I may be able to break through the spell to discover that which is concealed. My intentions concern only your well-being; you should fear neither me nor my skill as a mesmerist."
The nurse looked up and her exquisite eyes were wide with wonder and delight.
"You speak my tongue!" she exclaimed, in her own language.
"Yes, and I know Bangalore. Will you trust me, Sister?"
She reached out her hands to him; he leaned forward and took them.
"My name is Sadhvi," she breathed. "Please help me to remember. I don't want to lose my job without even knowing the reason why."
"Here," interrupted Mrs. Wheeltapper, wheezily. "What's all this? I'll brook no hanky-panky in my premises! And what was all that gobbledygook? Not sweet nothings, I hope; not bold as brass in front of a poor old widow woman!"
Burton smiled at her and released the nurse's hands.
"No, Mrs. Wheeltapper, nothing like that. It just so happens that I know the sister's town of birth and speak her native language. She was moved to hear it again."
"It's true," put in the nurse. "You cannot imagine, Mrs. Wheeltapper, how it gladdens my heart to be so reminded of my childhood home!"
The old lady threw up her hands.
"Ooooh!" she cried, with more life in her voice than Burton had heard yet. "Ooooh! How lovely! How wonderful for you, my dear!"
"It is! It is!" Sister Raghavendra nodded. "Ma'am, I feel positive that you can trust the good captain to behave with the utmost decorum. I would speak with him awhile, if you don't mind, in my own tongue; of his travels in my homeland. It would be dreadfully boring for you. Why not continue with whatever you were doing? I smell cooking-were you performing miracles in the kitchen again?"
The landlady raised a gnarled hand to her veil and tittered behind it.
"Silly girl!" she chortled. "You know very well that Polly cooks to my directions and inevitably adds her own special ingredient: utter incompetence!"
The three of them laughed.
"Mrs. Wheeltapper," said Burton, "a few months ago the monarch honoured me with a knighthood. I can give you my word that I would never tarnish that title with any act of impropriety."
Even as he spoke, Burton wondered whether he could trust himself to keep such a promise.
"Good gracious!" the old widow cooed. "A knight! A `sir' in my own home! Well I never did! I never did indeed!"
She reached up and lifted her veil. The baggy, liver-spotted face beneath, as ancient as it was, had obviously been attractive in its day, and was made so again by the unrestrained smile that it directed at the famous explorer. Two teeth were missing, the rest were yellowed, but the pale blue eyes twinkled with good humour, and Burton couldn't help but grin back.
"Forgive me!" pleaded the widow. "I treated you like a common visitor when you are obviously a man of culture, as was my dear Tony, may he rest in peace. I shall give you both your privacy!"
Burton got to his feet and escorted her to the door.
"A gallant gentleman!" she sighed. "How lovely!"
"It has been a delight to meet you, Mrs. Wheeltapper. I shall talk with Sister Raghavendra awhile, then depart-but may I call again some time? I know of the 17th Lancers and would be very much interested in hearing of your late husband's service with them."
A tear trickled down the old woman's cheek. "Captain Sir Burton, sir," she said, "you are welcome to call on me whenever the inclination takes you!"
"Thank you, ma'am."
He closed the door after her and returned to Sadhvi Raghavendra, who, in truth, was the real reason he might consider a repeat visit to 3 Bayham Street.
"What do you know of mesmerism?" he asked as he sat down.
"I saw it practised many times when I was a child," she replied.
"Are you scared of it?"
"No. I want to know what it is that I can't remember. If that means placing me in a trance, so be it."
"Good girl. Wait a moment-let me pull this chair a little closer."
Burton shifted the armchair until he was sitting face to face with the nurse. He looked her in the eye and spoke in her language.
"Allow yourself to relax. Keep your eyes on mine."
Two pairs of dark, fathomless eyes locked together.
"You have long lashes," said the girl.
"As do you. Don't speak now. Relax. Copy my breathing. Imagine your first breath goes into your right lung. Inhale slowly; exhale slowly. The next breath goes to the left lung. Slowly in. Slowly out. And the next into the middle of your chest. In. Out."
As her respiration adopted the Sufi rhythm he was teaching her, Sister Raghavendra became entirely motionless but for an almost undetectable rocking, which Burton could see was timed to her heartbeat.
He murmured further instructions, guiding her into a cycle of four breaths, each directed to a different part of her body.
Her mind, subdued by the complexity of the exercise, gradually gave itself over to him. He could see it in her luminous eyes, as her pupils expanded wider and wider.
Suddenly, the black circles closed inward from the sides, forming perpendicular lines, and the deep brown irises blazed a bright pink. Something malevolent regarded him.
Burton blinked in surprise but the illusion-if that's what it was-was gone in an instant.
Her eyes were brown. Her pupils were wide black circles. She was entranced.
Recovering himself, he spoke to her: "I want you to return to last night; place yourself in Penfold Private Sanatorium, in Lieutenant Speke's room. You've been reading to him but now you are interrupted. A man enters the room."
"Yes," she replied softly. "I hear a slight creak as the door swings open. I look up from my book. There is a footstep and he is there."
"Describe him. In detail."
A shudder ran through her body.
"Such a man! I've never seen the like! His frock coat is of crushed black velvet; his shirt, trousers, shoes, and hat are all black, too; and his pointed fingernails are painted black; but his skin and hair-straight hair, so long that it falls past his collar-they are whiter than snow! He's an albino! There is no trace of colour on him except in the eyes, which are of a dreadful pink with vertical pupils like a cat's."
Burton started. Those same eyes had looked out of the girl's head just moments ago!
"There is something wrong with his face," she continued. "His upper and lower jaws are pushed a little too far forward, almost forming a muzzle, and his teeth-when he smiles-are all canines! He enters the room, looks at the lieutenant, looks at me, then tells me to fetch a trolley. I must obey. It's as if I have no will of my own."
"So you leave the room?"
"For a moment, and when I return there are three-three-"
She stopped and whimpered.
"Don't worry," soothed Burton, "I am here with you. You are perfectly safe. Tell me what you can see in the room."
"There are three men. I-I think they are men. Maybe something else. They are short and wear red cloaks with hoods and they are each sort of-sort of twisted; their bodies are too long and too narrow in the hip; their chests too deep and wide; their legs too short. Their faces, though-their faces are-"
"Oh, save me! They are the faces of dogs!"
Burton sat back in surprise. He reached into his jacket and drew the sketch by Dore from his pocket. He unfolded it and showed it to the girl.
She recoiled away from him and began to tremble violently.
"Yes! Please-please tell me-what are they?" Her voice rose in volume and pitch. "What are they?"
He took her hands in his and stroked their backs with his thumbs. Her skin felt smooth, soft, and warm. The heady scent of jasmine filled his nostrils.
"Shhh. Don't be afraid. It's over, Sadhvi. It is in the past."
"But they aren't human!"
"Perhaps not. Tell me what happens next."
"I walk back into Lieutenant Speke's room with the trolley, see the-the three things-then the albino jumps from behind me and restrains me, with a hand over my mouth. He is so strong! I can't move! The dog-log-menthey lift Lieutenant Speke from his bed, place him on the trolley, and wheel him out of the room."
"There are no other nurses? No one else sees them?"
"No, I don't think so-but you have made me realise something: the sanatorium, or at least this wing of it, seems very quiet; more so than it should be, even at such an early hour."
"So the dog creatures leave the room-and then?"
"Then the man turns me, looks into my eyes, and tells me to forget; to remember only that Speke's family took the lieutenant. He leaves the room and I follow him along the corridor toward reception. I feel strange. There are nurses standing motionless and, as he passes them, he says something to each in a low voice. We reach reception, and I see the trolley standing empty by the desk. The albino orders me to move over to it and I obey. He speaks to the nurse at the desk and she starts to blink and look around. Then he walks toward the main door and, as he passes me, he says, `Awake!"'
She sighed and visibly relaxed. "He's gone."
"And now you find yourself pushing the trolley and remembering nothing of what just happened?" put in Burton.
"Very well. Close your eyes now. Concentrate on the rhythm of your breathing."
Sister Raghavendra's hands fell from his and she leaned back on the sofa. Her head drooped.
"Sadhvi," he murmured, "I'm going to count down from ten. With each number, you will feel yourself awakening. When I reach zero, you will be fully conscious, alert, refreshed, and you will remember everything. You will not be afraid. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven-"
As he counted, her eyelids fluttered and opened, her pupils shrank into focus, she looked at him, her hand flew to her mouth, and she cried: "Dear God! Did that really happen?"
"Yes, Sadhvi, it happened. A combination of shock and mesmeric suggestion caused you to bury the memories-but we have managed to uncover them."
"Those dog-things were abominations!"
"I suspect the Eugenicists have been at work."
"They can't! They can't do that to humans!"
"Maybe they didn't, Sadhvi. Maybe they did it to dogs. Or to wolves."
Her eyes widened. "Yes," she whispered. "Wolves!"
"What's the motive for abducting Speke, though? That's what puzzles me," continued Burton, thoughtfully. He stood up. "Anyway-thank you, Sister Raghavendra. You've been very helpful."
She rose from the sofa, stepped forward, and placed her hands on his chest.
"Captain, that albino fellow-he's-he's evil. I felt it. You will be careful, won't you?"
Burton couldn't help himself; his hands slipped around her slim waist and he pulled her close, looking down into her deep, soulful eyes.
"Oh!" she gasped-but it wasn't a protest.
"I'll be careful," he whispered throatily. "And when the mystery is solved, shall I return to tell you about it?"
"Yes. Come back, please, Captain Burton."
It was midday, but London, buried in the heart of the congealing fog, was deprived of light. It tried to generate its own-gas lamps and windows blazed into the murk, but their fierce illumination was immediately crushed and reduced to vague patches of yellow, orange, and red. Between them, the vast and sickening gloom writhed like a living entity, consuming all.
"That you, guv'nor?" came a gruff voice from above.
"Yes, Mr. Penniforth. You're still breathing?"
"Aye. Been 'avin' a smoke o' me pipe. There ain't nuffink like a whiff o' Latakia for fumigatin' the bellows! Get yourself comfy while I light the bull's-eyes. An' call me Monty."
Burton climbed into the hansom. "Bellows?" he grunted. "I should think your lungs are more like a couple of turbines if they can deal with that fog and Latakia! Take me to Scotland Yard, would you?"
"Right ho. Half a mo', sir!"
While his passenger settled, Penniforth climbed down from the box, struck a lucifer, and put the match to the lamps hanging from the front of the engine, and the front and rear of the cabin. He then hoisted himself back up, wrapped his scarf around the lower half of his face, straightened his goggles, gave the peak of his cap a tug, and took hold of the steering bars.
The machine coughed and spluttered and belched smoke into the already laden atmosphere. It lurched away from the curb, pulling the cab behind it.
"Hoff we go, into the great unknown!" muttered Penniforth.
As he carefully steered the machine out of Mornington Crescent and into Hampstead Road, there came a mighty crash and tinkling of broken glass from somewhere far to the left.
"Watch out!" he exclaimed softly. "You don't want to be drivin' into a shop window, do you! Irresponsible, I calls it, bein' in charge of a vehicle in these 'ere weather conditions!"
By the time the hansom cab reached Tottenham Court Road, the "blacks" were falling: coal dust coalescing with particles of ice in the upper layers of fog before drifting to the ground like black snowflakes. It was an ugly sight.
Penniforth pushed on, guided more by instinct and his incredible knowledge of the city's geography than by his eyes. Even so, he steered down the wrong road on more than one occasion.
The steam-horse gurgled and popped.
"Don't you start complainin'!" the cabbie advised it. "You're the one wiv a nice hot boiler! It's cold enough up here to freeze the whatsits off a thingummybob!"
The engine emitted a whistling sigh.
"Oh, it's like that, is it? Feelin' discontentified, are you?"
It hissed and grumbled.
"Why don't you just watch where you're a-going and stop botherin' me wiv the benny-fits of your wisdom?"
It rattled and clanged over a bump in the road.
"Yup, that's it, of girl! Giddy up! Over the hurdles!"
The hansom panted through Leicester Square and on down Charing Cross Road, passing the antiquarian bookshops-whose volumes were now both obscure and obscured-and continuing on to Trafalgar Square, where Monty had to carefully steer around an overturned fruit wagon and the dead horse that had collapsed in its harness. Apples squished under the hansom's wheels and were ground into the cobbles; the resultant mush was quickly blackening with falling soot.
Along Whitehall the engine chugged, then left into Great Scotland Yard, until, outside the grim old edifice of the police headquarters-a looming shadow in the darkness-Penniforth brought it to a standstill.
"There you go, guv'nor!" he called, knocking on the roof.
Sir Richard Francis Burton disembarked and tossed a couple of coins up to the driver.
"Toddle off for a pie and some ale, Monty. You deserve it. If you get back here in an hour, I'll have another fare for you."
"That's right gen'rous of you, guv'nor. You can rely on me; I'll be 'ere waitin' when you're ready."
Burton entered Scotland Yard. A valet stepped forward and took his coat, hat, and cane, shaking the soot from them onto the already grimy floor.
Burton crossed to the front desk. A small plaque on it read: J. D. Pepperwick-Clerk. He addressed the man to whom it referred.
"Is Detective Inspector Trounce available? I'd like to speak with him, if possible."
"Your name, sir?"
"Sir Richard Francis Burton."
The clerk, a gaunt fellow with thick spectacles, a red nose, and a straggly moustache, looked surprised.
"Not the explorer chappie, surely?"
"The very same."
"Good gracious! Do you want to talk to the inspector about yesterday's shooting?"
"Perhaps. Would you take a look at this?"
Burton held out his authorisation. The clerk took it, unfolded it, saw the signature, and read the text above it with meticulous care, dwelling on each separate word.
"I say!" he finally exclaimed. "You're an important fellow!"
"So-?" said Burton slowly, suggestively inclining his head and raising his eyebrows.
The clerk got the message. "So I'll call Detective Inspector Trounce-on the double!"
He saluted smartly and turned to a contrivance affixed to the wall behind him. It was a large, flat brass panel which somewhat resembled a honeycomb, divided as it was into rows of small hexagonal compartments. Into these, snug in circular fittings, there were clipped round, domed lids with looped handles. A name was engraved onto each one.
The clerk reached for the lid marked "D. I. Trounce" and pulled it from the frame. It came away trailing a long segmented tube behind it. He twisted open the lid and blew into the tube. Burton knew that at the other end a little valve was popping out of an identical lid and emitting a whistle. A moment later a tinny voice came from the tube: "Yes? What is it?"
Holding its end to his mouth, the clerk spoke into it. Though his voice was muffled, Burton heard him say: "Sir Richard Burton, the Africa chap, is here to see you, sir. He has, um, special authorisation. Says he wants to talk to you about the shooting of John Speke at Bath yesterday."
He transferred the tube to his ear and listened, then put it back to his mouth and said, "Yes, sir."
He replaced the lid, lifting it back to its compartment, the tube automatically snaking in before it.
He smiled at Burton. "The inspector will see you straightaway. Second floor, office number nineteen. The stairs are through that door there, sir," he advised, pointing to the left.
Burton nodded and made for the doors, pushed through them, and climbed the stairs. They were wooden and needed brushing. He came to the second floor and moved along a panelled corridor, looking at the many closed doors. The sound of a woman weeping came from behind one.
About halfway down the passage he found number nineteen and knocked upon it.
"Come!" barked a voice from within.
Burton entered and found himself in a medium-sized, high-ceilinged, square, and shadowy room. Its dark corners lay behind a thin veil of blue cigar smoke. There was a very tall, narrow window in the opposite wall, a fireplace with quietly crackling logs in its hearth to his right, and a row of large filing cabinets lining the wall to his left. A red and threadbare rug covered the centre of the floor, a hatstand supported a battered bowler and dusty overcoat by the door, and a big portrait of Sir Robert Peel hung over the fireplace. Gas lamps flickered dimly in the alcoves to either side of the chimney breast. A lit candle wavered on the heavy desk beneath the window. It cast an orange light over the left side of Detective Inspector Trounce's face.
He was sitting behind the desk, facing the door, but stood as Burton entered.
Trounce was short, big-boned, and heavily muscled. He possessed wide shoulders, an enormous chest, and the merest hint of a paunch. He was a man, decided Burton, to whom the word "blunt" could be most aptly applied. He had thick, blunt-ended fingers, a short blunt nose, and, under a large outward-sweeping brown moustache, an aggressive chin that suggested a bluntness of character, too.
The police officer extended a hand and shook Burton's.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Sir Richard," he said, indicating a chair as he sat in his own.
"Please," his visitor replied, "captain will do." He pulled the chair over to the desk and sat down.
"You served in the military?" Trounce's voice was deep with a slightly guttural rasp.
"Yes, in the 18th Bombay Native Infantry."
"Ah. I didn't know. The newspapers only ever mention the expeditions. Anyway, how can I help you, Captain? Something to do with Lieutenant Speke's accident, I suppose?"
"Actually, no. Something to do with Spring Heeled Jack."
Trounce jumped back to his feet. In an instant, his face hardened and his eyes turned cold.
"Then you can leave this office at once, sir! Who put you up to this? Was it that little prig, Honesty? I'll take the mockery no more!"
Burton remained seated, crossed his legs, and pulled a couple of cigars from his jacket pocket.
"Would you care to smoke, Inspector?" he asked.
Trounce glared at him and said, "I don't know what it has to do with you, but let me make something very clear: I will never deny what I saw!"
"I don't doubt it. Sit and calm down, man! Have a cigar."
Trounce remained standing.
Burton sighed. "Inspector, as you can see, I have a black eye, a cut lip, a burned brow, and a number of very painful bruises. Do you want to know how I got them?"
"Last night, I was set upon by a creature that fits the description of Spring Heeled Jack."
Trounce dropped into his chair. He distractedly took the proffered cigar, cut it, held it to the candle, placed it to his lips, and inhaled the sweet smoke. His eyes never left Burton's face.
"Tell me what happened. Describe him," he muttered, the blue smoke puffing from his mouth.
Burton cut and lit his own cigar and recounted the events of the previous evening.
When he'd finished, Trounce leaned forward and the candle flame reflected in his eager blue eyes. "That's him, Captain Burton! That's him! So he's back!"
"Buckingham Palace and the prime minister have asked me to look into the matter, and I was told that you are the expert. So, you see, you overre acted. I'm not here to mock; rather, I thought perhaps we could work together."
The detective inspector got up and crossed to the filing cabinets, slid open one of the bottom drawers and, without having to search for it, selected a well-thumbed file and took it back to the desk.
"My apologies. Mention of that devil never fails to get my goat. I've had to put up with a great deal of derision over the years. Well now, tell me: what do you know of him?"
"Virtually nothing. Until last night, I thought he was a fairy story, and I didn't even make that connection until Palmerston brought his name up in relation to my attacker."
"In that case, I shall give you a brief history."
Without consulting the report, Trounce-who obviously knew the facts by heart-gave an account of its contents: "The first sighting was twentyfour years ago, in 1837, when a gentleman reported seeing a grotesque figure leaping over the gate of a cemetery near the Bedlam mental hospital. A few days later, it was October, a fifteen-year-old servant girl named Mary Stevens, who'd just visited her parents in Battersea, was returning to her employer's home on Lavender Hill via Cut Throat Lane when she was grabbed by someone-or something-fitting the same description as your attacker. It was a sexual assault, Captain Burton-her clothes were ripped from her body and her flesh was squeezed and caressed in an aggressive manner. Not surprisingly, the girl screamed, which attracted the attention of several local residents, who came to investigate the commotion. Upon hearing them approach, the assailant bounded away, making tremendous jumps, and is said to have vanished in midair.
"The following day, in the same neighbourhood, the creature sprang out of an alleyway onto the side of a passing brougham and demanded to know the whereabouts of `Lizzie,' whoever she may be. The terrified coachman lost control of his horses and crashed the carriage into the side of a shop, suffering serious injuries. There were a great many witnesses, all of whom reported that the `ghost'-as it was referred to at the time-escaped by vaulting over a nine-foot-high wall. According to one witness, the creature was laughing insanely and babbling in a fairly incoherent manner something about history and ancestors."
"And its appearance?" interrupted Burton.
"Again, apart from minor variations which can be attributed to the usual unreliability of witnesses, the various descriptions are remarkably consistent and tally with what you saw. Can I offer you a drink? There's a decanter of red wine in the top-left filing drawer."
Burton shook his head. "No thank you. I must confess, I rather overdid it last night."
"It happens to the best of us," replied Trounce, with a wry smile. He reached across to a brass lid on the desktop, identical to the ones Burton had seen on the wall downstairs, and lifted it. A tube snaked out from the desk. Trounce opened the lid and blew into the tube. A moment later, a voice answered.
"Pepperwick," the detective inspector said into the mouthpiece, "would you have a pot of coffee and a couple of cups sent up? And give my appointments to Detective Inspector Spearing until further notice. I don't want to be disturbed."
He put the tube to his ear; back to his mouth; said, "Thank you"; then replaced the lid and put it back on the desk.
"So, to continue: throughout late 1837 and early '38 there were a great many sightings of this so-called ghost or devil, which seemed to be haunting an area within the triangle formed by Camberwell, Battersea, and Lambeth, and, incidentally, it was during this period that it acquired the nickname by which we still know it. Several young girls were attacked but all escaped physically unharmed, though molested. However, the shock caused a couple of them to lose their minds. In addition, two witnesses to Jack's 'manifesta- tions'-if I may refer to his appearances that way-died of heart failure. I point this out because some newspapers reported the incidents as `wicked pranks.' Personally, Captain, I cannot classify as a prank any action that results in the loss of life or sanity.
"We now come to one of the most well-documented and widely reported cases: that of Jane Alsop. On February 19, 1838, at a quarter to nine in the evening, the bell was rung at the gate of a secluded cottage on Bearbinder Lane in the village of Old Ford, near Hertford, north of London.
"Jane Alsop, an eighteen-year-old, was inside the cottage with her parents and two sisters. She went to the front door and opened it, walked down the path, and approached a shadowy figure standing at the gate. In her statement to the local police, she said that it appeared to be an extremely tall, angular man who was wrapped in a cloak and wearing some sort of helmet.
"She asked what he wanted and he replied that he was a policeman and that he needed a light. He told her that someone had been seen loitering in the neighbourhood.
"The girl fetched a candle from the cottage and handed it to the waiting figure. As she did so, it threw back its cloak to reveal itself as Spring Heeled Jack. Grabbing her, it tore her dress down to her waist before she managed to break free and run back along the path. Jack followed and caught her at the threshold of the front door. He was pulling her hair and yanking at her slip when her younger sister entered the hallway, witnessed the scene, and let out a loud scream of terror. At this, the older sister came running and managed to drag Jane from the thing's grasp. She pushed him back and slammed the front door in his face. The apparition then bounded away and vanished into the night."
There came a knock at the door.
"Come!" cried Trounce.
A short white-haired woman shuffled in bearing a tray.
"Thank you, Gladys."
The woman padded over to the desk and laid down the tray. She poured two cups and silently withdrew, closing the door behind her.
Burton flicked his cigar stub into the hearth.
"Milk?" asked Trounce.
"No. Just sugar." The famous explorer shovelled four teaspoonfuls into the steaming liquid.
"By Jove!" blurted Trounce. "You have a sweet tooth!"
"A taste I picked up in Arabia. So what happened next?"
"Jane subsequently gave the most complete description of Spring Heeled Jack we have on record and, I can confirm, it matches yours in every respect, even down to the blue flame flickering around its head.
"Eight days later, another eighteen-year-old girl, Lucy Scales, and her younger sister, Lisa, were passing through Green Dragon Alley on the outskirts of Limehouse when they spotted a figure slumped in an angle of the passage and draped with a cloak. The person appeared to be in distress; the sisters heard groans of pain. Lucy approached it and asked whether she could help, at which the figure raised its head, which was clad in a black helmet around which blue fire raged. The creature screamed and a tongue of flame leaped from its head to Lucy's face, blinding her and sending her staggering backward. She dropped to the ground and was stricken with violent fits which continued for many hours after the encounter. Lisa held Lucy, called for help and-My God!"
Trounce's eyes widened and he stared at Burton, his mouth working.
"What is it?" asked the explorer, puzzled.
"My God!" repeated Trounce, in a whisper.
"Spit it out, man!" snapped Burton.
The detective cleared his throat and continued, speaking slowly and with apparent amazement: "As Lucy lay in her sister's arms, Spring Heeled Jack walked quickly away. Lisa reported that he was talking to himself in a highpitched, crazy-sounding voice. Most of his words, she said, were unintelligible. There was, however, one phrase that came to her clearly."
Trounce paused. He looked at the man opposite, who asked: "What was it?"
"Apparently," replied Trounce, "he shouted, `This is your fault, Burton!"'
Sir Richard Francis Burton felt icy fingers tickling his spine.
The two men looked at one another.
Shadows shifted across the walls and the sound of a mournful foghorn pushed at the windowpane.
"Coincidence, of course," whispered Trounce.
"Obviously," replied Burton, in an equally hushed tone. "In 1838, I was seventeen years old and living with my parents and brother in Italy. I'd spent very little of my life in England and had certainly never encountered or even heard of Spring Heeled Jack."
Trounce shook himself, opened the report, and looked down at it.
"Anyway, now we come to my own encounter," he said, brusquely, "which occurred on June 10, 1840; perhaps the most infamous date in English history."
Burton nodded. "The day of the assassination."
Assassination has never changed the history of the world.
Dennis the Dip slowed down Police Constable William Trounce by five minutes; five minutes in which the eighteen-year-old policeman could have become a national hero rather than the laughing stock of Scotland Yard.
Constable Trounce's beat incorporated Constitution Hill, and he always timed it so that he got there at six o'clock, just as Queen Victoria and her husband emerged from the "Garden Gate" of Buckingham Palace in their open-topped carriage for their afternoon spin around Green Park. For the twenty-year-old queen, the daily ritual was a breath of fresh air-so far as the word "fresh" could be applied to London's malodorous atmosphere-an hour's escape from the stifling formality of Buckingham Palace, with its dusty footmen and haughty butlers, servile advisers and fussing maids; while for the citizens who gathered along the route, it was a chance to cheer or boo her, depending on their opinion of her three-year reign.
Trounce was usually quick to warn those who jeered to "move along."
Today, though, as he proceeded along the Mall, Trounce spotted Dennis the Dip and decided to follow him. The notorious pickpocket was, as usual, dressed as a gentleman and looked entirely at ease among the well-heeled crowd that sauntered back and forth along the ceremonial avenue. It was a disguise. Had he opened his mouth to speak, the chopped and diced version of the English language that emerged would have immediately marked Dennis as a native of London's East End, otherwise known as "the Cauldron."
He scrubbed-up well, did Dennis, thought Trounce, as he slowed his pace and kept his eyes on the meandering crook.
The pickpocket was obviously looking for a mark and, when he found it, Trounce would swoop. It would be a nice feather in his cap if his very first arrest ended the career of this particular villain.
However, it soon became apparent that Dennis was rather indecisive today. He wandered from one side of the avenue to the other; trailed first one man then the next; stopped by a doorway and eyed passersby; and all the time his skillful fingers remained in plain view. They didn't plunge into a single pocket, not even his own.
After a while, Trounce grew bored, so he walked over to the petty crook and stood facing him.
"What ho, old son! What do you think you're up to, then?"
"Oh bleedin' 'eck, I ain't up to nuffink, am I!' whined Dennis. "Jest givin' me Sunday best an airing, that's all."
"It's Wednesday, Dennis."
"No law agin' wearin' a Sunday suit on a Wednesday, is there?"
The crook's rodentlike eyes swivelled right and left as if seeking an escape route.
Trounce unhooked his truncheon from his belt and pushed its end into Dennis's chest.
"I'm watching you, laddie. Those fingers of yours will be slipping into where they're not welcome before too long, and, when they do, nay fingers will be closing over your shoulder, mark my words. We'll soon have you out of that suit and wearing the broad arrow. There are no pockets in prison uniforms, did you know that?"
"Yus. But you ain't got no cause to threaten me!"
"Haven't I, now? Haven't I? Well, see it stays that way, Dennis my lad. Now hop it! I don't want to see you in this neck of the woods again!"
With a vicious look at the young constable, the pickpocket spat onto the pavement and scurried away.
Constable Trounce grinned and resumed his beat.
At the end of the Mall he passed Buckingham Palace and turned right into Green Park. Rather than walk along Constitution Hill itself, he preferred to pace along on the grass, thus positioning himself behind any crowd that might gather along the queen's route. In his experience, the troublemakers usually hid at the back, where they could more easily take to their heels should anyone object to their catcalls.
Her Majesty's carriage, drawn by four horses-the front left ridden by a postilion-was already on the path a little way ahead. There were four outriders with her, two in front of the vehicle and two some yards behind it.
Trounce increased his pace to catch up, walking down a gentle slope that gave him an excellent view of the scene.
Despite the mild weather, the crowd was sparse today. There were no protests and few hurrahs.
He jumped at the sound of a gunshot.
What the hell?
Breaking into a run, he scanned the scene ahead and saw a man wearing a top hat, blue frock coat, and white breeches walking beside, and to the right of, the slow-moving carriage. He was throwing down a smoking flintlock and drawing, with his left hand, a second gun from his coat.
In an instant, horror sucked the heat from Trounce's body and time slowed to a crawl.
His legs pumped; his boots thudded into the grass; he heard himself shout, "No!"
He saw heads turning toward the man.
His breath thundered in his ears.
The man's left arm came up.
The queen stood, raising her hands to the white lace around her throat.
Her husband reached for her.
A second man leaped forward and grabbed the gunman.
"No, Edward!" came a faint yell.
The scene seemed to freeze; the two men entwined; their faces, even from this distance, so similar, like brothers; each person in the crowd poised in midmotion, some stepping forward, some stepping back. The queen standing, wearing a cream-coloured dress and bonnet. Her consort leaning forward, in a top hat and red jacket. The outriders turning their horses.
Christ! thought Trounce. Christ, no! Please, no!
Suddenly a freakish creature flew past him.
What the hell? A-a stilt-walker?
Tall, loose-limbed, bouncing on what seemed to be spring-loaded stilts, it stopped just ahead of the constable, who stumbled and fell to his knees.
"Stop, Edward!" the weird apparition bellowed.
A bolt of lightning shot from its side into the ground and the lean figure staggered, groaning and clutching at itself.
Below, the two struggling men turned and looked up.
A puff of smoke from the pistol.
Blood spraying from Queen Victoria's head.
"Merciful heaven!" gasped Trounce.
A detonation echoing away over the park; rippling into the distance, taking with it the consequences of the heinous act; history, quite literally, in the making; expanding outward to envelop the Empire.
"No," groaned the stilt-walker. "No!"
It turned and Trounce saw the face: crazy eyes, a thin blade of a nose, a mouth stretched into a rictus grin, drawn and lined features, pale beneath a sheen of sweat, twisted in agony.
The thing was wearing a big round black helmet and a black cloak beneath which there was a white, tight-fitting bodysuit. Some sort of flat lantern hung on the chest, spitting fire. There were scorch marks on the material around it.
The odd figure bobbed on the short stilts then bounded forward and leaped right over the police constable's head.
Trounce toppled onto the grass, rolled over, and looked behind him. The costumed figure was nowhere to be seen. It had vanished.
Christ Almighty. Christ Almighty.
Trounce looked down the slope.
Victoria had flopped backward out of the carriage onto the ground. Her husband was scrambling after her.
The assassin was still struggling with the other man but, as Trounce watched, the gunman was suddenly thrown off his feet by his assailant. His head hit the low wrought-iron fence that bordered the path. He went limp and lay still.
The crowd surged around the royal carriage. The outriders plunged through the throng and attempted to hold the panicked people back, away from the stricken monarch. A police whistle blew frantically.
That's me, thought Trounce. That's me blowing the whistle.
A figure detached itself from the mob and started running across the park, northwestward, heading for Piccadilly.
It was the man who'd grappled with the assassin.
Trounce took off in pursuit. It seemed the right thing to do.
The thought occurred to him that police-issue boots were ill designed for running.
"For goodness' sake!" he gasped to himself. "Concentrate!"
He raced past the outriders.
A dazed young man, squinting through a monocle, wandered into his path and Trounce barrelled into him, shoving him aside with a curse.
His quarry angled up a slope and disappeared into the heavily wooded upper corner of the park. Trounce grunted with satisfaction; he knew there was a high wall behind those trees.
He was breathing heavily and had a stitch in his side by the time he got to the edge of the woods. He stopped there, gulping air, eyeing the gloomy spaces beneath the boughs, listening for movement.
Distant screams and shouts were sounding from behind him. Police whistles were blasting from different points around the park as constables converged on the scene.
A rustle came from the trees. A movement.
Trounce took hold of his truncheon.
"Step out into the open, sir!" he commanded. "I saw what happened; there's nothing to worry about. Come on, let's be having you!"
"Sir! I saw you trying to protect the queen. I just need you to-"
There was a flurry of leaves, and suddenly Trounce found himself confronted by the stilt-walking man again, leaping out of the thicket.
Taken by surprise, Trounce stepped back, lost his footing, and fell onto his bottom.
"How-how-?" he stuttered.
The thing phantom, devil, illusion, whatever it was-crouched as if to spring.
Reflexively, Trounce whipped his arm back and hurled his truncheon at it. The club struck the creature in the chest, hitting the lamplike object affixed there. Fiery sparks erupted and rained onto the grass. The apparition stumbled.
"Damn!" it cursed in a clear human voice, then turned and sprang to the constable's right, leaping away in huge bounds.
Trounce got to his feet and watched the thing heading eastward. It took a massive leap into the air and, twenty feet above the ground, winked out of existence. The air seemed to fold around it.
Trounce stood, his arms dangling at his sides, his mouth open and his eyes wide.
A minute passed before, as if waking from a dream, he roused himself and looked down the sloping grass to the royal carriage. Then he looked back at the thicket. His quarry-the man who had tackled the assassin-must still be in there somewhere.
He entered the trees and began to search, calling, "There's no point hiding, sir. Please show yourselfl"
Ten minutes later he admitted defeat. He'd found a top hat lying on the ground, but that was all. The man had escaped.
He trudged down the slope toward the chaotic scene below, his mind blank.
Other constables had arrived and were pushing the growing crowd back, helped by the queen's outriders.
Trounce pushed past the onlookers-some silent, some sobbing, some talking in hushed tones, some shouting or screaming-and crossed to where the assassin lay. The man's head was pinned to the top of the low railings, held at an awkward angle, the spike of an upright projecting from his left eye, blood pooling beneath. It was a grisly sight.
Two flintlocks lay on the ground nearby.
Odd, thought Trounce, the way the assassin and the man who tried to stop him looked so alike.
He found himself standing helpless, unable to do anything, his mind numbed.
Off to his left, a moustachioed man was calmly watching the scene with a smile on his face. A smile!
A memory stirred. A case he'd read about from two or three years ago; something concerning a girl being attacked by-by a ghost which escaped by taking prodigious leaps-by a thing that breathed fire-by a creature known as-Spring Heeled Jack!
We will not define ourselves by the ideals you enforce.
We scorn the social attitudes that you perpetuate.
We neither respect nor conform with the views of our elders.
We think and act against the tides of popular opinion.
We sneer at your dogma. We laugh at your rules.
We are anarchy. We are chaos. We are individuals.
We are the Rakes.
The candle guttered and died, sending a coil of smoke toward the high ceiling.
The two men allowed a silence to stretch between them.
Detective Inspector Trounce broke it: "They said I panicked and ran away from the scene," he murmured. "Said that my claim to have seen Spring Heeled Jack was merely an attempt to justify my `moment of cowardice.' Had it not been for the fact that I was wet behind the ears-I'd only been on active duty for a fortnight-they would've drummed me out of the force. As it was, I was laughed at, taunted, and passed over for promotion for more than a decade. I had to prove myself again and again; earn respect the hard way. They have long memories here in the Yard, Captain Burton. They still call me `Pouncer Trounce,' and there are whisperings from certain quarters even all these years later."
"You mentioned someone named Honesty?" asked Burton.
"Detective Inspector Honesty. Not a bad man by any stretch, but unimaginative-a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. He has the ear of the chief commissioner and neither of them has time for what they regard as my hysterical fantasy."
"No one understands your situation better than I," said Burton, sympa thetically. "I am `Blackguard Burton' or `Ruffian Dick'-or far worse-to many, all because of a report I wrote in Karachi, just five years after the death of Victoria. A report written, I should add, in response to a direct order."
Trounce grunted. "When a man gets a stain on his character-justified or not-it doesn't wash off." He drained his coffee cup and took a couple of cigars from a box on his desk, offering one to his visitor, which the explorer accepted, cut, and lit. Trounce put a match to his own and threw the lucifer into the fireplace without bothering to relight the candle. The Yard man sat back, and his eyes glittered through the smoke.
Burton knew he was being weighed up, and he was well aware that, generally, men-but definitely not women-tended to react negatively to his heavy jaw and hard chin, smouldering eyes and permanent glower. Maybe the detective was comparing his battered features to those of a desperado, or a prizefighter, or maybe even an arch-criminal.
Yet as their gazes locked, the king's agent saw an appreciative twinkle appear in the eyes of the man opposite, and he realised that Trounce had penetrated his gruff exterior, that he was seeing something of Burton's "inner man."
He seemed to approve.
"Anyway," the detective continued, "after the events of that day, I was suspended from duty for a month and played no part in the subsequent investigation. As you know, of course, the man-"
"Just a moment, Detective Inspector," interrupted Burton, holding up his hand. "The assassination was some twenty years ago and, like you, I was eighteen years old at the time; just enrolling into Oxford University, as a matter of fact. Unlike you, I wasn't at the scene or even in the country and received the news of Victoria's death `over the grapevine,' as it were. The facts of the investigation, as they emerged and were reported in the newspapers, were spread out over a period of weeks. I cannot claim to have read them all and, besides, my memory needs refreshing. So please make no assumptions about my knowledge, unless it is to assume that I know nothing at all."
Trounce gave a curt and appreciative nod of his head.
"Understood, Captain. The man who wrestled with the assassin after he fired the first shot, which missed the queen, was never found. The newspapers christened him the `Mystery Hero.' I have always been convinced that he was somehow related to the shootist-their physical resemblance was remarkable-but, unfortunately, my superiors didn't place much stock in my impressions from that day; few other witnesses noted the likeness; and, besides, all the gunman's relatives were traced and questioned and the man was not among them.
"As for the assassin himself: Edward Oxford was born in Birmingham in 1822, one of seven children. His father was a brutal alcoholic who beat his wife and children on an almost daily basis. He was eventually certified insane and committed to an asylum where he died after choking on his own tongue during a fit of some sort. The grandfather, incidentally, had also been a lunatic.
"His mother, Hannah, separated from her husband when Edward was seven years old. She moved with the boy and one of his sisters to Lambeth where, after the lad completed his schooling, he began working as a barman in various public houses, including the Hat and Feathers, which is on the corner of Green Dragon Alley."
"Ah-ha! So you have a connection between Oxford and Spring Heeled Jack, aside from the assassination, I mean!" exclaimed Burton, his eyes gleaming.
"Yes. At the time of the Lucy Scales incident, Oxford was working in the pub; he was actually behind the bar when the encounter was taking place around the corner. Apparently, when he heard about the attack he began to laugh hysterically and had to be restrained and sedated by a doctor."
"Interesting. Pray continue, Inspector."
"Oxford was still living with his mother and sister in lodgings at West Place, West Square, Lambeth. By 1840, he was the potboy at the Hog in the Pound on Oxford Street but in May of that year he quit the job. On the fourth, he bought a pair of pistols from an old school friend for the sum of two pounds, and for the next four weeks he practised with them at various shooting galleries around London. These were the weapons with which, the following month, he killed Queen Victoria."
"His motive?" asked Burton.
"In his room there were found papers he'd written in order to suggest that he was a member of a secret society entitled `Young England' but these were proven to be nothing but the rantings of a sick mind. No such group existed. Edward Oxford was insane, there's no doubt of it. He was known to occasionally cry for no apparent reason and to talk incoherent nonsense. The Lucy Scales incident definitely triggered a deterioration in his mental state.
"He often stated, according to his associates, that he wanted to be remembered throughout history. It was his pet obsession. The Yard detectives concluded that his motive was simply to achieve that fame-or, rather, infamy.
"The police investigation ended there. My colleagues were satisfied that a madman shot the queen and was then himself killed by an unknown person. With the subsequent onset of the constitutional crisis and widespread social unrest, the police had more to worry about than tracing the Mystery Hero, who, as far as most were concerned, had done the country a favour by saving it the cost of a hanging."
"But you weren't satisfied," suggested Burton, shrewdly.
"Not a bit. I kept digging. The coincidence of Edward Oxford being around the corner when Lucy Scales was attacked was too much for me to swallow. So I started searching for more connections between him and Spring Heeled Jack."
"And found them?"
"Yes. After the death of Victoria, the Hog in the Pound gained a measure of notoriety thanks to Oxford having worked there. It immediately became the regular drinking hole for a group of young aristocrats who reckoned themselves philosophers; their philosophy being that mankind is shackled in chains of its own making."
"The Libertine philosophy."
"Exactly. The Hog in the Pound is where the Libertine movement began."
"So the Mad Marquess was among the young aristocrats?"
"Yes. What do you know about him?"
"Just the reputation. And that he was the man who founded the Libertine movement."
"The bad reputation!"
"Even worse than mine, apparently." Burton smiled.
Trounce chuckled. "Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford. His history is colourful, to say the least. He succeeded to the marquessate after his father died-in the midtwenties-and inherited the Curraghmore Estate in County Waterford, in the Republic of Ireland. He immediately set about disposing of the family fortune as quickly as possible, mainly by betting on horses and gambling in clubs.
"He first achieved notoriety in 1837 when, after a successful foxhunt near Melton Mowbray, he and his party got stupendously drunk, entered the town, found half a dozen cans of red paint, and proceeded to daub it all over the buildings on the high street. Thus the saying `painting the town red'!"
"The folly of youth," commented Burton.
"That same year," continued Trounce, "he escaped the famine and moved to an estate just north of Hertford, near the village of Waterford, though the name is a coincidence-there's no connection with County Waterford."
"It seems a big coincidence!"
"I suppose so, though I don't read anything significant into it. My suspicion is that the man's vanity-which, incidentally, knew no limits-made him choose that location. Perhaps he fancied himself as the marquess of an English estate, in addition to the Irish one. He lived in a rambling old halfderelict mansion, appropriately named `Darkening Towers,' on considerable acreage to the west of the village."
"Wait a minute. If Waterford is just outside Hertford, it must be fairly close to Old Ford."
"Well spotted. Darkening Towers is about three miles from the Alsop cottage."
"Does Jane Alsop still live there?"
"Yes. She's Jane Pipkiss now. She lives in the cottage with her husband, Benton-they married in 1843-and their children, a daughter and a son.
"Anyway, between '37 and '40, Beresford continually clashed with the local constabulary for drunken brawling, vandalism, and a number of brutal pranks which he played on local women. The man seemed to have no respect for the law, did absolutely anything for a bet, and displayed a strong streak of sadism."
"The Marquis de Sade holds an allure for certain types," said Burton. "You should meet my friend Swinburne."
"Really?" replied Trounce flatly, with an eyebrow raised.
"Well, maybe not."
"Anyway, after the death of Victoria, Beresford and his cronies started drinking in the Hog in the Pound, obviously attracted by its notoriety as `the assassin's pub.' As their numbers grew and their anarchistic philosophy took form, they became the Libertines."
Burton frowned. "But what's their connection with Jack?"
Trounce gazed at the burning log in the fireplace, as if the past could be glimpsed in the flames. "By '43, the creature had become like the bogeyman of folklore. Whenever a sexual molestation occurred, the public was quick to cry `Spring Heeled Jack!' whether there was any evidence of his involvement or not, and there were a great number of pranks committed in his name by young bloods dressed in costume. As time passed, it became more difficult to separate the genuine incidents from those performed by copycats. Then, during '43, there was a new outbreak of sightings in the Battersea, Lambeth, and Camberwell triangle. They appear to have been genuine. I shan't go through them now, Captain, but you can borrow this report and read the details yourself.
"Henry Beresford seemed to be galvanised by the reappearance of the creature. He held Spring Heeled Jack up as some sort of Libertine god-called it a `trans-natural entity'-a being entirely free of restraint, with no conscience or self-doubt; a thing that did whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted.
"As the Mad Marquess's ranting increased, the Libertine group split into two; into what are now known as the `True Libertines,' who offer the more reasonable proposition that art, culture, and beauty are essential to the human spirit and who, nowadays, concern themselves mostly with railing against the detrimental influence of the Technologists' machinery; and into the far more extremist `Rakes,' led by Beresford, who seek to overthrow society's legal, moral, ethical, and behavioural boundaries. Confounded scoundrels, the lot of them!"
"It would seem," pondered Burton, "that if Spring Heeled Jack is a man, then the Mad Marquess is your obvious suspect."
"He most certainly was," agreed Trounce, "but for certain difficulties. For one, physically and facially he in no way resembled the creature I saw. For another, he possessed rock-solid alibis for the times when Mary Stevens and Lucy Scales were attacked. And for a third, though the folklore of Spring Heeled Jack has grown these twenty years past, the creature itself has been absent until the attack on you last night, which, from your description, I have no doubt was committed by the apparition I saw back in June 1840."
"Which presents a difficulty because?"
"Because Henry de La Poet Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, died two years ago. He fell from his horse and broke his neck."
Burton's eyes lost focus as he reviewed all that Trounce had told him. The connections between Oxford, Beresford, and Spring Heeled Jack were circumstantial at best, coincidental at worst, yet possessed an undeniable allure; he sensed that an undiscovered truth lay concealed somewhere in the tangled web.
"There's something else," said Trounce, quietly.
Burton looked at him.
"When Spring Heeled Jack leaped past me toward the queen's carriage," said the detective inspector, "there was an aura of blue fire around his head and sparks and electrical charges shooting from his body. His costume was burned in places, and, when he turned, his face was stricken with pain.
"After he vanished, I pursued the Mystery Hero across the park and was again confronted by the apparition, this time near the woods in the park's northwestern corner. The creature moves exceedingly fast, but I cannot for the life of me see how it got there without passing me. Also, the Spring Heeled Jack that jumped out of the trees was not aflame, had no burn marks upon its suit, and displayed no signs of pain. In other words, Captain, I am convinced that there are at least two Spring Heeled Jacks!"
"Phew!" breathed Burton. "As if matters weren't complicated enough!" He stood. "You've been of immense help, Detective Inspector. I'm indebted to you."
Trounce got to his feet and held the report out to Burton, who took it.
"You can pay that debt by keeping me informed, Captain. My superiors will not allow me to actively investigate this case, which they regard as so much nonsense, so I'm counting on you to solve the mystery. Please remember, too, that when I'm off duty, I'm entirely at your disposal."
They shook hands.
"Thank you, Inspector Trounce-"
"William. I shall be sure to alert you to whatever progress I might make; I give you my word."
As Burton turned to leave, Trounce said: "One last thing, Captain."
"In the past, Spring Heeled Jack has always committed a number of assaults during a period of days before then vanishing for weeks, months, or years at a time."
"So you think another attack is due?"
It was midafternoon by the time Burton stepped out of Scotland Yard to be engulfed by the silence of the "London particular."
The soot was still falling.
Like a blind man, he tapped along the pavement with his cane until he found the curb. His eyes started to water and a stinging sensation burned his nostrils.
"Monty!" he bellowed.
A towering shadow loomed to his right and he stepped back with his heart hammering in his chest, expecting the uncanny stilt-walker to emerge from the cloud, but no, the shape was too bulky.
"That you, guv'nor?"
"Yes! By heaven!"
"Aye. It's a thick 'un, ain't it? I can hardly see the end o' me nose!"
Montague Penniforth materialised at Burton's side.
"Bismillah!" uttered the king's agent. "I didn't realise you were a giant!"
It was true: Penniforth was enormous, standing at least six foot five, and heavily muscled, too.
"Me muvver's to blame," the cabbie confessed. "She fed me too much porridge an' molasses!"
Burton noticed with astonishment that the man was still smoking his cherrywood.
"I'm glad you're here, Monty, but you should've gone home; you can't possibly drive in this!"
"Oh, don'tcha worry yourself about that; we'll just have to inch along a bit slow, like-but I'll get you to wherever you want to go, guv'nor, you can be sure o' that. Come on, the hansom's over here."
Burton followed Penniforth along the curb until the cab hove into view. As he clambered into it, he said, "Do you think you can find Montagu Place?"
"0' course! It's named after me, ain't it?"
Miraculously-because it seemed impossible-Montague Penniforth did find Montagu Place, though it took the rest of the afternoon. Burton gave him a very generous tip and, nurturing an idea that had occurred to him during the excruciatingly slow ride, he asked the cabbie to call on him the next day, or, if the fog precluded that, as soon as possible after it had cleared.
With a sigh of relief, the famous explorer stepped into his home.
Sir Richard Francis Burton had lived at 14 Montagu Place for just over a year. It was a four-storey structure with a basement flat. Most of its floors divided into two large rooms. The basement was Mrs. Iris Angell's domain; her sitting room-cluttered with all manner of framed pictures, decorative ceramics, ornaments, mementoes, and knickknacks-her bedroom, a bathroom, a larder, and the kitchen, which was the worthy old soul's pride and joy. It was fitted with every convenience a cook could possibly desire, and a great deal more besides, for the late Mr. Thomas Franklin Angell had been an ardent Technologist and a brilliant amateur inventor. A great many of her kitchen and household utensils and tools were entirely unique, having been designed and constructed by her late husband but never patented. The widow had told Burton that the attic was also filled with "Tom's fancies," though the explorer had never been up there to find out exactly what she meant.
At the end of the basement hallway, opposite the bottom of the staircase, a door opened onto steps leading up to an empty high-walled yard at the back of which lay what used to be a stable but was now an empty garage.
On the ground floor, there was a reception room and a seldom-used dining chamber.
The first floor was dominated by Burton's study, the costume and disguise room, a small water closet, and an empty chamber that the explorer was thinking of converting into a laboratory or photographic darkroom.
Up the stairs, the second floor held his bedroom, a dressing room, and a spare bedchamber for guests; while on the topmost floor, there was the library-which contained his huge collection of books and manuscriptsand a storage room.
When Burton entered his study he found five suitcases lined up beside the door and the maid, Elsie Carpenter, dusting the mantelpiece.
"Run along, Miss Elsie, there's a good girl."
"Yes, sir," she said, bobbing her head, and left the room. She was fifteen years old and visited the house each day, from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon, to do Mrs. Angell's bidding.
Burton found a note on his main desk and read it: Tuesday 17th September 1861 Dearest Dick I had a horrible time at the Fullers'. They were most unwelcoming and entirely unforthcoming concerning John's whereabouts, telling me only that he had been transported to London. I feel they went out of their way to conceal the truth from me. Perhaps if I apply to Sir Roderick Murchison he will intercede on our behalf? I understand that he is leaving Bath for London this afternoon (17th). I have returned your luggage and am now setting out for home. I sent a parakeet to mother asking whether, in view of the circumstances, she and father would be prepared to receive you. She replied that they are not. Do not worry, my love, their disapproval will subside once we are married. I shall call on you on Thursday afternoon. I cannot bear these times apart.
Burton dropped the note back onto the desk, sat down, and wrote a letter to Lord Palmerston. He felt sure that on his recommendation the prime minister would summon Sir Richard Mayne, the chief commissioner, and order him to put Detective Inspector Trounce in charge of the Spring Heeled Jack case. He sealed the letter in an envelope and wrote upon it "Urgent. Attn. Lord Palmerston" and signed it with his new code name-Abdullah-to ensure that it would be delivered straight to the prime minister's hand.
He went downstairs, took a whistle from the hall table, opened the front door, and gave it three quick blasts. Moments later, a runner leaped over the gate and landed on the doorstep, its tail wagging. Burton pulled a biscuit tin from under the hall table, opened its lid, and withdrew a chunk of ham. Mrs. Angell always ensured that something tasty was in that tin. He placed the meat on the doorstep and the greyhound eagerly wolfed it down. After it had finished, it licked its lips, looked at the letter Burton held out, and took it between its teeth.
He bent over the dog's ear and said, "10 Downing Street, Whitehall."
The runner turned and bounded back over the gate, vanishing into the fog.
Burton returned to his study and paced over to the fireplace. The maid had evidently lit the fire earlier, for it was burning, though in a desultory manner. He poked the life back into it, used it to light a cigar, and sank into his armchair.
As Palmerston had detailed that morning, Burton's life had so far been remarkable, but he felt that this day, perhaps, had been the most astonishing of them all.
He shook his head in wonder. Only yesterday he'd been agonising over what to do next!
Resting his head on the embroidered antimacassar, he closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to roam. They took him to 1841, the year he'd begun to study the Arabic language, the year the British Empire almost collapsed.
The government of the time, led by Lord Melbourne, had flown into a panic in the wake of Queen Victoria's death. There was only one clear successor to the throne: her uncle Ernest Augustus I, the Duke of Cumberland and King of Hanover, the fifth son of King George III. However, the thought of him becoming the king of England filled almost everyone with horror, for sixty-nine-year-old Ernest had, without a doubt, inherited his father's madness. There were persistent rumours that he'd brutally murdered his valet in 1810, fathered a son by Princess Sophia-who happened to be his own sister-and had indecently assaulted Lady Lyndhurst. He was also an extreme conservative, and thus out of step with the more liberal politics that were sweeping Britain at the time. Besides, it would mean reuniting the royal houses of Hanover and the United Kingdom, which had only been separated three years before, after Victoria came to power.
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, the populace took to the streets to protest at the possibility of Ernest becoming their king. Riots broke out in several cities. A bomb exploded near the Houses of Parliament.
The government declared a constitutional crisis, the Duke of Cumberland's accession was blocked, and regal powers were passed to a council of high officials, among them the then foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston. These men turned their attention to an item of legislation that had been due for presentation in August of 1840. It was the Regency Act, prepared when Victoria declared her first pregnancy and designed to allow her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, to be designated regent in the event of his wife's death before their child reached the age of majority.
Palmerston, who'd been intensely disliked by Victoria due to his propensity for acting without going through a proper consultation processes, knew a good thing when he saw it. With a political sleight of hand, he and his fellow council members backdated the Regency Act to make it effective from the time the royal couple's child had been conceived, rather than from the time of its birth. The Act was then rushed through Parliament and approved unanimously.
It was, of course, sheer hocus-pocus.
The unborn child had died with Victoria, so Act or no Act, the prince regent had no right to the throne. To achieve that, further manipulations were needed. The constitution required a rewrite.
Ernest Augustus I was, of course, furious. Had Hanover been any larger than a small English county, he may well have declared war. As it was, he looked on helplessly while the British politicians made the necessary adjustments and signed away his rights of accession.
In April 1842, the throne of the British Empire was passed to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Albert became king.
THE HOG IN THE POUND
The Government is the Empire's brain.
The Technologists are the Empire's mascle.
The Libertines are the Empire's imagination.
And 1, God help me, must be the Empire's conscience.
Wednesday tried and failed to dawn. It wasn't until late morning that the fog allowed a smudge of daylight to filter through.
Sir Richard Francis Burton had spent the previous evening pondering the report Detective Inspector Trounce had loaned him. There was one aspect of it that he and the Yard man hadn't discussed: in every description given by witnesses-even those where the apparition was said to be a ghost or a devil-its age was estimated as "early forties." Yet twenty-four years had passed since the first manifestation. If Jack had been in his early forties when he pounced on Mary Stevens then he should be nigh on sixty-five by now. The face Burton had seen beneath the globular helmet had been lined with madness and pain but certainly not with age.
He was beginning to agree with Trounce that the Spring Heeled Jack phenomenon might involve more than one person-and perhaps more than one generation.
As was his habit, he slept lightly and restlessly, awoke early, and wrote for three hours before taking breakfast.
Throughout the rest of the morning, the gas lamps glowed in both his study and the library upstairs as he brought down stacks of books and searched through them for references to any mythical being that might resemble his assailant. While he was at it, he kept his eyes open for information concerning wolf-men, too.
In the latter case, there was a plethora of references to loups-garous-or werewolves. Tales had been told of half-man, half-wolf creatures all over the world and throughout history. The same could not be said for Spring Heeled Jack; Burton found but one mention of a stilt-walking spirit.
He was smoking a hookah while studying the reference when Algernon Swinburne called at one o'clock.
The poet stood on tiptoe and peered over a wall of books at Burton, who'd absent-mindedly muttered "send him in" when Mrs. Angell announced his friend's arrival. It was plain that the great explorer was in one of his "scholarly funks"-as Swinburne called them-and was blind to all but the book in his hand.
"Boo!" said the poet.
"Moko Jumbi," announced Burton.
The explorer looked up. "Oh, hello, Algy. There's nothing. No reference I can find that at all resembles Spring Heeled Jack with the exception of the Caribbean's `Moko Jumbi,' which is represented in carnivals by stilt-walking dancers. The origin is definitely African. Moko is a god of the Congo region; the word means `diviner.' As for jumbi,' I believe it roughly equates with the Arabian `djinni' and probably has its origin in the Congolese word `zumbi.' So: 'Diviner Spirit.' Interesting."
"Is it?" said Swinburne. "Why are you researching Spring Heeled Jack? Are you joining the Rakes? And why do you have a black eye?"
"The one gave me the other."
"What? What? Are you telling me that Spring Heeled Jack whacked you in the eye?" exclaimed Swinburne, moving around the books to sit in the armchair facing Burton's. His elbow caught a stack and sent volumes cascading to the floor.
Burton sighed. `Do you consider `whacked' to be a suitable word for an up-and-coming poet?"
"Shut up and answer the question!"
"If I shut up I can hardly-"
"Richard!" screeched Swinburne, bouncing in his seat.
Burton laughed. It looked like it hurt him; his upper lip curled, revealing over-long canines, and his eyes seemed to wince, as if seldom-used muscles had come into play. Three deep-chested barks, then the face fell back to its normal savage aspect and the penetrating eyes levelled at Swinburne's own pale green orbs.
"It's true, Algy. I was attacked by Spring Heeled Jack after leaving you at the Cannibal Club," he said, putting his book aside. He proceeded to describe the incident.
"Great heavens, but that's wonderful!" enthused Swinburne when he'd finished. "Fancy being punched in the head by a myth! I don't believe you, of course. Have you eaten?"
"I can assure you that I'm telling the truth and it felt far from wonderful. No, I haven't."
"Come on then-let's go for tiffin at the Black Toad."
Burton put the hookah aside and stood. "Very well, but go easy on the ale. Last time we lunched there, I had to carry you out over my shoulder."
"Funny." The little poet chuckled. "I don't remember that at all!"
As he leaped up, his foot clipped another pile of books and sent it crashing down.
A couple of minutes later, the two men, with overcoats buttoned up to their necks, top hats at a jaunty angle on their heads, and canes swinging in their hands, strolled out of 14 Montagu Place and headed east toward Baker Street.
The fog had turned from a deep hellish red to a pustulant pale yellow. People, animals, and vehicles moved cautiously through it. Sound was muted. Even the sudden report of a nearby velocipede's boiler exploding, and the rider's yells as his calves were scalded, sounded strangely muffled.
"Algy," said Burton, "you've knocked around with a Rake or two. Why their enthusiasm for Spring Heeled Jack? What exactly is their philosophy?"
"They're extremists," declared the poet. "Anarchists. Nihilists. Very naughty boys. They claim that all moral codes and social conventions are entirely artificial and that by following them a man is willingly allowing his authentic identity to be suppressed."
They crossed Gloucester Place and entered Dorset Street, Swinburne hurrying along with his characteristically springy step and nervous movements. As they passed the corner, the sweet odour of roasting chestnuts caressed their nostrils; one of the rare pleasurable scents the streets of London could offer. Burton tipped his hat at the vendor.
"Afternoon, Mr. Grub. How's business?"
"Rotten! No one can see me in this blinkin' pea-souper. Can I do you a bag?"
"Sorry, old son. I'm on my way for a nosh-up at the pub!"
"Ah well. Enjoy, Cap'n!"
It was one of Burton's great talents, this ability to communicate with anyone, whatever their social standing. Some of his acquaintances sneered at it; they considered it indecorous to converse with the hoi polloi, but their opinions did little to influence him.
"The difference between a True Libertine and a Rake," said Swinburne as they moved on, "is that the one is concerned with how and what an individual should contribute to society, while the other is concerned only with how society shapes the individual."
"You make the Libertines sound rather virtuous. That's not their reputation."
"No, no! Don't misunderstand me! Both branches of the movement are thoroughly disreputable by the fabled Mrs. Grundy's puritanical standards. Our mystical mother of propriety stamps her little foot at the merest whiff of scandal; and the Libertines stink of it, not least because sexuality is a focal point for their cause. They identify it as the area where the Empire's hypocrisy is most apparent; and they are wickedly unrestrained in their support of eroticism, pornography, pederasty, de Sade, and all manner of vices."
A gentleman walking past at this moment muttered, "I say!" as he caught some of the poet's words. Swinburne chuckled and raised his voice so that other passersby might hear.
"The True Libertine points to the thousands of prostitutes on London's streets and says: `Look! Sex for sale! This is what these woman-and men! have resorted to in order to survive in this so-called civilisation! Where are your much-vaunted morals now, Society? Where is your restraint; your puritan ethic? And these prostitutes have customers! Men whose sexual tastes cannot be satisfied within your rules of so-called decency! You, Society, generate the very thing you denigrate
Burton glanced around as heads turned and disapproving glares were cast at his companion. Swinburne continued regardless, sermonising with more than a little relish.
"The Rake, meanwhile, celebrates the sexual act as the one place where men and women are literally and metaphorically stripped naked and reduced to their purest nature-I mean `pure' in the sense of unaffected; the one occasion when we are most liable to shed the artificial skin of Society and gain a sense of our own fundamental identity."
The two men turned right into Baker Street.
"The Rakes say of shame: what is it? Of virtue: we can miss it. Of sin: we can kiss it. And it's no longer sin!"
Burton gave a derisive snort. However, after a moment of thought, he conceded: "I can sympathise with the general sentiment. Any intelligent man can see that the hypocritical politeness and studied mannerisms of our civilisation suppress and oppress in equal measure. They certainly serve to obliterate difference, enforcing a regime that discourages intellectual, emotional, and sexual freedoms. Far better for Society that its citizens are built according to its dictates, rather than in their own image. It makes them better slaves."
"Hear! Hear!" agreed Swinburne. "Those who allow their identity to be formed by the Empire are nothing but the willing fuel for it! This is why the Libertines, and the Rakes in particular, offend, disconcert-even frightenpeople. The movement pushes at boundaries that the masses aren't even aware of until they are pushed; and it is those boundaries that define most people's identities and which tell them that they're a valued member of a stable society. People like to feel wanted, to know they have their part to play, even if it's only as fuel for the Empire's furnace! My goodness, look at that!"
Swinburne pointed to where an elephantine shape was emerging from the miasma. It was one of the new dray horses-a mega-dray-which the Eugenicists had recently developed. These gigantic beasts stood fifteen feet high at the shoulder (measuring them in "hands" had been deemed ridiculous) and were immensely strong. The cargo wagons they towed were often the size of small houses.
Burton and Swinburne pressed against the wall of the building beside them as the towering animal plodded closer, trying to move as far from it as possible; and with good reason, for mega-drays had no control over their bladders or bowels and were overproductive in both departments. This had proven a serious problem in London's already filthy streets until an enterprising member of the Technologist caste had invented the automated cleaners, popularly known as "litter-crabs," which now roamed the city every night scooping up the mess.
Sure enough, as the horse came abreast of their position, towing an omnibus behind it, large boulders of manure thudded onto the road, splattering across the pavement, narrowly missing the two men.
The mega-dray faded into the lazily swirling pall.
Burton and Swinburne walked on.
"Where does Spring Heeled Jack enter into it, Algy?" asked the king's agent.
"According to the Mad Marquess," answered Swinburne, "if we transcend the borders that define us, we will gain what he termed `trans-natural' powers. Spring Heeled Jack jumping over a house, he maintained, is an illustration of this, for Jack is the ultimate example of a being who dances to nobody's fiddle but his own-law or no law, morals or no morals. This freedom is, apparently, the next step in our evolution."
Burton shook his head. "Being liberated is one thing; sexually assaulting young girls is quite another," he objected. "By God! Poor old Darwin's theory seems to have proven dangerous for everyone. It's all but destroyed the Church; Darwin himself has been forced into hiding; and now it's being used to justify sexual aggression against innocents! Surely, Algy, such acts are indicative of regression rather than evolution? If we must remove suppressions in order to evolve-and in that much, I agree with the Rakes-should there not also come a self-generated code of conduct that disallows such acts of depravity? Evolution should move us away from animalistic behaviour, not toward it!"
Swinburne shrugged and said, "The Rakes specialise in being bestial. They glory in perversion, black magic, drugs, and crime. They want to break taboos, laws, and doctrines, all of which they view as artificial and oppressive."
The Black Toad came into sight.
"Praise the Lord!" enthused Swinburne. "I'm parched!"
"Can you last a little longer?" asked Burton. "I have it in mind to bypass this place and walk on to the Hog in the Pound on Oxford Street."
"Ah, you want to see the birthplace of the Libertines, hey? Certainly, let's leg it over there. But why the sudden interest, Richard?"
Burton told Swinburne the story of Spring Heeled Jack's tenuous connection with Edward Oxford.
Half an hour later, they arrived outside the Hog in the Pound. It was a dark, overweight building; ancient, timbered, crooked, and begrimed. A litter-crab had broken down in the road outside the premises and curious onlookers had gathered around. It was collapsed with its four right legs curled underneath. Half of the thin litter-collector arms on its stomach had been crushed or bent out of shape, and steam wafted sluggishly from a split in its raised side. One of the left legs twitched repetitively.
Swinburne giggled. "You see," he announced at the top of his voice. "The spirit of the Libertines still haunts the Hog in the Pound! All machines that pass here must surely die! Hoorah for art and poetry! Down with the Technologists!"
They entered the public house and pushed through the dimly lit, lowceilinged taproom-where a thirsty mob of manual labourers, clerks, shopkeepers, businessmen, and city gents were swilling away the soot that lined their throats-to the parlour, which was considerably lighter and less well attended. Hanging their coats and hats on the stand beside the door, they crossed to a table and made themselves comfortable. A barmaid took their order: a glass of port for Burton and a pint of bitter for Swinburne. They both chose steak and ale pie for their meal.
"So this is where it all happened," observed Swinburne, looking around at the smoke-stained, wood-panelled chamber. "The very room where the Mad Marquess preached to his followers."
"A sermon of lawlessness, madness, and self-indulgence, by the sound of it.
"Not to begin with. At first it was fairly mild Luddite stuff. Machines are ugly. Machines steal our jobs. Machines dehumanise us. The usual sort of thing. Personally, I think the marquess was pandering to the crowd; I don't think he much believed in his own preaching."
"What makes you say that?"
"The fact that he was known to have struck up a close friendship with Isambard Kingdom Brunel back in '37. They were often seen together at the Athenaeum Club. If Beresford was truly a Luddite, why the blazes was he so often seen in deep conversation with the leader of the emerging Technologist movement?
"By '43, if I remember rightly, he stopped railing against the Technologists altogether and, instead, introduced the idea of the trans-natural man. That became his obsession, and he became much more the extremist. Ah! The drinks! Thank you, my dear. Cheers, Richard!"
Swinburne took a gulp from his pint, which looked enormous in his tiny hand. He wiped froth from his upper lip then continued, "Delicious! The problem for the marquess was that most of his followers were more interested in opposing the Technologists than they were in all the evolving-man bunkum, so in 1848, a more palatable version of his preachings was developed by a small breakaway group, comprised of painters, poets, and critics, and led by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and my friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti."
"The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood."
"That's what the core group call themselves, though they and their many followers have more generally become known as the True Libertines. Over the past twenty years or so, their brand of Libertarianism has transformed into a celebration of the so-called nobility of the human spirit. They look at the humble labourer and declare that he is a thing of beauty, this hard-done-by man, whose very existence is threatened by the ugly, job-stealing machines."
He grinned. "I must admit, though, that the True Libertines are mostly the listless elite, foppish painters, languorous authors, lazy philosophers, or half-mad poets like me. They-perhaps I should say 'we,' for I do count myself among their number-we would rather wax lyrical about the labourer than actually pick up a shovel ourselves."
"You don't fool me, little 'un," said Burton. "You're a half-arsed Libertine at best!"
"I confess-I'm merely a dabbler!" The poet laughed. "Anyway, to get back to the subject of my little discourse, Henry Beresford and his remaining supporters renamed themselves the Rakes and the rest you know: they're a bunch of lawless rascals who delight in mischief. And, of course, they received a huge boost when Darwin published The Origin of Species. Who needs morality when God is dead?"
"I wonder what Darwin himself would say about it?" pondered the king's agent.
"Perhaps he'd agree with your theory of a natural system of justice; the idea that we all have an individual built-in moral sense which brings rewards for our good deeds and punishments for our bad. I suspect he'd see it as a function that assists in the survival of the species."
"Maybe so, if he's still alive. With every religion declaring jihad against him, he might have discovered that scientific realism can't protect against the vengeance of a dead god."
"Do you believe the rumours that the Technologists are sheltering him?"
It wouldn't surprise me. Francis Galton, the head of the Eugenicist faction, is his cousin. But back to the Rakes, Algy-do they still idolise Spring Heeled Jack?"
"If anything, more so. Their new leader, Beresford's protege, is more extreme even than he was."
"And who is this new leader?"
"You know of him. His name is-Ah-ha! Here's the food!"
The barmaid placed a steaming plate before each man, laid cutlery on the table, and asked, "Another round, gents?"
"Yes," said Swinburne. "No. Wait. Bring us a bottle of red wine instead. Does that suit you, Richard?"
Burton nodded and the barmaid smiled toothily and departed.
"Oliphant," declared Swinburne.
"The leader of the Rake faction for the past two years: Laurence Oliphant."
By midafternoon, the fog had turned a rusty brown and flakes of soot were once again drifting lazily through it.
Swinburne got drunk and staggered off into the smothering murk with no clear destination in mind. He would undoubtedly end up unconscious in a gentlemen's club or brothel; his behaviour had been deteriorating these past weeks.
What that lad needs, thought Burton, is a purpose.
The king's agent had managed to talk with the manager of the Hog in the Pound before departing. He'd learned that the original owner of the pub-the man who'd employed Edward Oxford and witnessed the birth of the True Libertines and Rakes-was named Joseph Robinson.
"He's an elderly gent, now, sir," the manager had advised. "A few years back, 1856 it was, he tired of the daily journey to and fro-he's always lived in Battersea, you see-so he sold up and bought himself a public house closer to home, a nice little place called the Tremors."
"Strange name for a pub!" Burton had commented.
"Aye, 'tis. If you ever go there, ask him about it-there's a story!"
Burton got home at six and hadn't been there for more than ten minutes when a loud detonation sounded outside the house. It was followed by the clang of the doorbell. A minute later Mrs. Angell knocked on the study door and announced the arrival of Mr. Montague Penniforth, "who's leaving a trail of soot on the carpet."
The doorway darkened behind her as the giant cabbie ducked and stepped through. He was wrapped in a calf-length red greatcoat, beneath which he wore white breeches, knee-high boots, and a tricorne hat, all peppered with black flakes.
"I'm sorry, good lady," he said. "My mistake. Forgot to wipe me feet. You see, I'm preoccupied, like, on account of the fact that me crankshaft just broke and flew a good forty feet in the air afore it came back down to earth in three pieces."
He shrugged at Burton, who was seated at the main desk. "I'm sorry, guv'nor, but I don't think I'll be takin' you anywhere 'til I get the bleedin' thing replaced; beggin' your pardin for the bad langwidge, ma'am!"
Mrs. Angell sniffed and muttered, "I wouldn't mind so much if they were normal-sized feet!" and glided out of the room with a haughty air.
Burton stood and shook his visitor's hand. "Hang up your hat and coat, Monty. A brandy?"
"Don't mind if I do, sir."
Burton poured a couple of generous measures and, after Penniforth had divested himself of his outer layers, handed him a glass and gestured to one of the armchairs by the fireplace.
The men sat opposite each other and the cabbie gave a satisfied sigh.
"Blimey," he said, "takin' a brandy in the house of a toff-who'd have thought?"
"A toff, Monty?"
"'Scuse me, guv'nor!"
Burton gave a wry smile. "I've not properly introduced myself, have I?"
"No need, sir. I reads the papers. You're Sir Richard Burton, the Africa gentleman. A reg'lar Livingstone, you are!"
"Ouch!" winced Burton.
Penniforth looked bemused.
"It's not a comparison I'm keen on," explained the explorer.
"Different ideas. I say, you enjoyed that brandy! Another?"
The cabbie looked in surprise at his empty glass. "I wouldn't say no, if it ain't an imposition, sir; I didn't notice that one go down the pipe!"
Burton handed over the decanter. "Here, help yourself. Tell me, Monty, how well do you know the East End?"
The big man looked up in surprise-and forgot to stop pouring the brandy until his glass was filled almost to the brim.
"Oofl" he gasped. "The Cauldron! I can look after meself but I wouldn't recommend it to no one but them what's tired o' life. I lives in Cheapside, what's in spittin' distance o' Whitechapel, so I knows the East End. I knows all o' London. It's me job."
"Have you heard anything about wolves in the area?"
Penniforth's face-a solid, clean-shaven, weather-beaten, and square affair, framed by curly brown hair-paled slightly.
"Aye, somethin' of the sort. It's said they're more men than wolves; monsters what have been comin' out after dark these weeks past. You ain't gonna ask me to go a-huntin' wiv you, I hope?"
Montague Penniforth swallowed his overfilled glass of brandy in a single gulp.
"Bloody 'ell," he gasped.
"You can refuse, of course," said Burton. "I know the Cauldron is dangerous enough even without monsters running around it, but one way or another I intend to go there tonight. I was hoping that you'd come with me, as you know your way around. I'll pay you generously."
Penniforth reached up and scratched his head through his thick curls.
"The thing is, sir, that you bein' a toff 'n' all-a-beggin' your pardin- it'll make you a target for every scallywag what sets eyes on you. An' in the East End, every bugger what sets eyes on you will be a scallywag!"
Burton stood up. "Wait here. Finish the brandy if you like. I'll be about fifteen minutes."
He strode across his study and disappeared through a door.
Penniforth refilled his glass and looked around. He'd never seen a room like this. It was crammed with books and weapons and pictures and charts and things he didn't even know the name of. He got to his feet and wandered around, examining the old flintlocks, the modern pistols, the curved knives, and the great variety of swords; it was the weapons that appealed to him most.
The cabbie had often exclaimed to his wife, "Ow the other 'alf live!" But this man Burton, he didn't seem to belong to the other half; he was one of a kind. He acted like a gentleman but he'd the face of a brute. He was of the "upper crust" but he spoke to the cabbie like they were equals. He was famous but he had no airs and graces. Strange!
The door leading to the stairs opened and a rough-looking oldster with a long white beard stepped in; an ex-seaman if his rolling gait was any indication.
"Hallo, Pa!" greeted Penniforth. "You lookin' for the master of the ouse?"
"Yus," croaked the new arrival, blinking beneath his beetling white eyebrows. "The beggar owes me three 'n' six an' I can't wait no longer!"
"Ho, he does, does he?"
"Yus. Where is 'e, the rat?"
Penniforth laid down his glass and pushed out his chest. "'Ere now, you'd better watch your tongue, Mister!"
"My tongue, is it?" wheezed the old man. "What yet gonna do abaht it, ay?"
"For a start, me of mucker," growled Penniforth, "I'll pick you up by the collar of that two-'undred-year-old coat o' yours, an' by the seat of them scabby-lookin' pants, an' I'll throw you out o' this 'ouse right into the gutter, make no mistake!"
"Oh yet will, will yet!"
"Yes I blinkin' well will!"
The oldster let loose a bark of laughter and suddenly grew much taller and a lot wider.
"There'll be no need for that, my good fellow!" came Sir Richard Francis Burton's voice.
Montague Penniforth staggered backward. "My sainted aunt!" he cried. "It's that African)u-)u!"
"No, Monty, it's a white wig, powder in my beard, a little stage makeup to cover the scars, some old clothes, and a spot of playacting!" said the old man, who suddenly didn't seem so old.
"Lord Almighty! You had me proper fooled! You're a blinkin' artist, guv'nor!"
"So you think I'll pass muster in the Cauldron?"
"Cor blimey, yes-no one will look at you twice!"
"Jolly good! Then it just remains for us to arm ourselves and we'll be off, if you're agreeable?"
"Right ho, sir; right ho!"
Burton crossed to the bureau that stood against the wall between the two windows and, opening a drawer, pulled from it a brace of modern pistols. He handed one of the six-shooters to the giant cabbie.
"It's loaded, so be careful. And Monty, this is only to be used in the very last resort, is that understood?"
"If you have to draw it, be careful where you point it and only pull the trigger if there's no other option."
"Right you are, guv'nor."
"Good. Let's be off, then. I'm afraid we'll have to pay one of your competitors to take us there."
"Don't worry about that," said Penniforth. "We cabbies have an under- standin' between ourselves. An' whatever chap takes us, I'll 'ave 'im arrange for me steam-horse to be towed away from outside your 'ouse, too."
They pushed their pistols into their belts, buttoned up their coats, and left the house.
For night on five hours, Sir Richard Burton and Montague Penniforth had been trudging around the crowded streets, courts, alleys, and cul-de-sacs of Whitechapel with the fog churning around them and the unspeakable filth sticking to their boots.
The honeycomb of narrow, uneven passages, bordered by the most decrepit and crowded tenements in the city, was flowing with raw sewage and rubbish of every description, including occasional corpses. The stench was overpowering and both men had vomited more than once.
They passed tall houses-"rookeries"-mostly of wood, which slumped upon their own foundations as if tired of standing; houses whose gaping windows were devoid of glass and patched, instead, with paper or cloth or broken pieces of wood; windows from which slops and cracked chamber pots were emptied; from which defeated eyes gazed blankly.
Lines of rope stretched across the alleys, decorated with flea-ridden rags; clothes put out to be washed by the polluted rain, later to dry in the rancid air, but currently marinating in the toxic vapour.
Time and again the two men were approached by girls barely out of childhood, who materialised out of the fog with matted hair and bare feet, smeared with excrement up to their knees, covered only by a rough coat or a thin, torn dress or a man's shirt which hung loosely over their bones; who offered themselves for a few coppers; who lowered the price when refused; who begged and wheedled and finally cursed viciously when the men pushed past.
Time and again they were approached by boys and men in every variety of torn and filthy apparel, who demanded and bullied and threatened and finally, when the pistols appeared, spat and swore and sidled away.
Time and again they passed skeletal women sitting hunched in dark corners clutching tiny bundles to their breasts; poverty and starvation gnawing at them; too weak and hopeless even to raise their heads as the two men walked quietly by.
Burton, the author, the man who'd described in minute detail the character and practices of cultures far removed from his own, felt that he could never find the words to depict the utter squalor of the Cauldron. The dirt and decay, the putrescence and rot and garbage, the viciousness and violence, the despair and emptiness; it was far beyond anything he'd witnessed in the darkest depths of Africa, amid the so-called primitives.
Thus far tonight, the two men had drunk sour-tasting beer in four malodorous public houses. It was the fifth that delivered what they were looking for.
They were approaching Stepney when Burton mumbled, "There's another public house ahead. I have to get this foul taste out of my mouth. We'll take a gin or rum or something; anything, so long as it's not that pisswater they call ale."
The cabbie nodded wordlessly and stumbled on, his big feet squelching through the slime.
The pub-the White Lion-halfway down a short and crooked lane, bulged out over the mud as if about to collapse into it. The orange light from its windows oozed into the fog and was smeared across the uneven road surface and opposite wall. Shouts, screams, snatches of song, and the wheeze of an accordion came from within the premises.
Burton pushed open the door and they entered, Penniforth bending to avoid knocking his head on the low ceiling.
"Buy us a drink, Dad?" asked a man of Burton before he'd taken two paces toward the bar.
"Buy yer own fuckin' drink," he replied, in character.
"Watch yet mouth, you old git!" came the reply.
"Watch yours!" warned Penniforth, his massive fist pushing up under the man's chin.
"Steady, mate, no 'arm done," whined the individual, turning away.
They shouldered through the crowd to the counter and ordered gins.
The barman asked to see their money first.
Leaning on the scarred wood, they gulped down the spirit and immediately ordered another round.
"Thirsty, aint'cha?" commented the man beside Penniforth.
"Yus," grunted the cabbie.
"Me too. I always gets a thirst on after fightin' with the missus."
"Been givin' you earache, 'as she?"
"Not 'alf, the bleedin' cow. I ain't seen you in 'ere before."
"I ain't been 'ere afore."
"That your old fella?" The man nodded toward Burton.
"Yus," answered Penniforth, gruffly. "Nosey, ain'tcha?"
"Just bein' neighbourly, that's all. If yet don't wanna talk, it ain't no skin off my nose!"
"Yer, well, fair enough. I thought I'd get 'im out o' Mile End for an 'oliday!"
The other man laughed. "An 'oliday in Stepney! That's rich!"
"At least you don't 'ave bleedin' monsters runnin' around at night!" exclaimed the cabbie.
Burton smiled appreciatively into his glass. Good chap, Monty! Quick work! He ordered more drinks and included a beer for their new acquaintance.
"`Ere yer go, mate-get that down yer neck," he rasped, sliding the pint over.
"Ta, Dad, much appreciated. The name's Fred, by the way. Fred Spooner."
"I'm Frank Baker," offered Burton. "This is me son, Monty."
They drank to each other's health.
Over in the corner, the man with the accordion began to squeeze out another tune and the crowd roared its bawdy lyrics, which, as far as Burton could make out, told of the various places visited by a pair of bloomers belonging to Old Ma Tucker.
He waited patiently, the odour of old sweat and bad breath and acidic beer and stale piss clogging his nostrils. He didn't have to wait for long.
"So they're in Mile End now, are they?" shouted Spooner above the noise.
"Yus," said Penniforth.
"They'll be 'ere next, then," said the East Ender, with an air of resignation. "My mate over in Wapping lost 'is tenant to 'em last week."
"Wotcher mean, `lost'?"
"They snatched one of the kids what roomed at 'is place. That's what they do-they steal the nippers, though most of the kids what were taken 'ave come back since. They took 'em from Whitechapel first, then Shadwell, Wapping these weeks past, and now I guess it's Mile End's turn."
"Bloody 'ell. What are they?"
"Dunno, mate. Dogs. Wolves. Men. Summick in-between. You know they explode?"
"Explode?" uttered Burton. "What do yer mean?"
"I've 'eard of three occasions when it's 'appened: they burst into flames for no reason and burn like dry straw 'til there ain't nuffink of'em left! I wish the 'ole lot o' them would go up like that. It's hell draggin' 'em back, if yer arsk me!"
"It's a rum do, that's fer sure!" said Burton.
"Come on, Pa-we'd better be off," urged Penniforth.
"I'll finish me drink first," objected Burton.
"'Urry it up, then!"
"You seen an artist around?" Burton asked Spooner.
"Aye. Slick Sid Sedgewick is the best in the business. Why, you got a scam?"
"No, mate. Not a con artist. I mean an artist what draws and paints."
Spooner spluttered into his glass. "You gotta be jokin'! A paintin' artist around 'ere!"
"I just 'eard there was one, that's all."
"What is it, Dad? You wanna get yer portrait done 'n' hanged in the National bleedin' Gallery?"
"All right, all right!" protested Burton.
He and Penniforth swigged back the last of their gin and bid Spooner farewell.
"Good luck to yer!" he said as they pushed away from the bar and heaved their way through the throng to the door. They burst out into the alleyway hoping for a breath of fresh air and getting quite the opposite.
It was well past midnight. The atmosphere was thick, loathsome, and catarrhal.
"Wapping's about a mile away as the crow flies," said Burton in a low voice. "Probably considerably farther through this maze."
"Don't worry, guv'nor, I knows the way."
"Are you up for it?"
"In for a penny, in for a pound."
"Good man! And well done-the way you got information out of that Spooner fellow was admirable! Thanks to you, we now know where the loupsgarous are hunting."
They resumed their trek through the hellish backstreets and, once again, were accosted every few minutes with varying degrees of pleading and promised violence. Only their pistols and Montague Penniforth's great size kept the knifemen, club wielders, and garrotters at bay.
Even those deterrents failed as they crossed Cable Street and entered the outskirts of Wapping.
They'd just passed along juniper Street and turned left into an unnamed alley when, from dark doorways to either side, a gang of men hurled themselves out and threw a large blanket over Penniforth, tripping him and, as he crashed to the ground, piling on top of him. He struggled and yelled but with five heavyset thugs applying their full weight, he was helpless.
Meanwhile, Burton found himself surrounded by three hard-eyed mentwo in front of him and one behind-each sneering, each waving a dagger threateningly.
He stood still, maintaining his guise as an elderly seaman, his back a little crooked, his eyes peering short-sightedly at the gang.
"W-what do yer want?" he stuttered, weakly.
"What 'ave you got?" replied one of the men, the apparent leader. He was tall, rat-faced, with a tangled black beard and lank hair.
"Is that so? Funny, 'cos I see a nice pair o' strong boots on yer feet, an' word 'as reached me that there's a pistol under that there warm-lookin' coat o' yours. Don't go for it if yer wanna live."
Burton heard the man behind taking a step forward.
Just one more, my friend, he thought.
"An' that bowler you're a-wearing on your 'ead will look just fine an' dandy on mine, I reckons."
"Ummph!" came Penniforth's voice from inside the blanket.
The step was taken.
Burton whirled and straightened, his right arm shot up, and his fist connected with the man's chin with such force that the jawbone broke with an audible snap and the crook's feet left the ground.
Before the man had landed on his back, Burton was facing front and springing at the leader. Taken aback, Rat-face stabbed at him reflexively, the dagger aimed at his throat, but Burton swivelled, brought his own arm up under his opponent's, hooked his elbow and wrist around it, and jerked upward. With a nauseating crunch, Rat-face's arm splintered. His scream was cut short by a ferocious uppercut. He flopped backward, out cold.
As the third man closed in, others left the blanket to come to his assistance. It was a stupid mistake. Penniforth erupted out of it with a bellow of rage, ripping the material asunder.
While the cabbie laid into the gang, Burton took off his bowler and tossed it at the remaining knifeman's face. Momentarily distracted, the crook ducked and his beady eyes wavered, missing Burton's next lightning-fast movement. Before he realised what had happened, the East Ender felt his wrist clutched in a grip of such strength that his fingers opened involuntarily and the dagger fell from them. He was yanked forward and his erstwhile victim's forehead smashed into the bridge of his nose. The thief collapsed to his knees, blood spurting from his face, his wrist still held, as if in a vise. He looked up, half dazed, and the eyes that met his blazed with sullen rage.
"N-no," he stammered.
"Yes," said Burton.
He twisted the man's arm out of its socket and put an end to the highpitched shriek with a chop to the neck. The limp crook crumpled into a yellowish puddle.
Burton turned to see how Penniforth was getting on and laughed.
The giant cabbie was grinning, with three unconscious men at his feet. He was holding the other two upside down, a hand around an ankle of each.
"What shall I do with the rubbish, guv'nor?" he asked.
Burton recovered his slime-stained bowler. "Just drop it in the street like everyone else does around here."
He turned and caught sight of four squat figures passing the far end of the alley. They were gone in an instant, leaving him with a vague impression of floor-length scarlet cloaks with big hoods, totally enveloping the wearers. A new order of nuns, perhaps, come to aid the poor? Yet there had been something disturbing about those four shapes; something-what was it?-yes, something about their gait.
"Monty!" he snapped, and started running.
The cabbie dropped the crooks and followed. They reached the end of the passage and Burton looked to the right just in time to see a glimpse of red cloth sliding past the edge of a wall.
He raced to the corner and peered down a dank alleyway no wider than the span of his arms. Far ahead, the four red cloaks were consumed by billowing fog.
Burton sped on, occasionally slipping in the slime, almost falling, with Monty on his heels.
An arched entrance opened onto yet another backstreet; almost pitch black, with just a glimmer of candlelight bleeding into the gloom from the gaps in a boarded-up window.
A flash of red passed through the light.
Along one dark passageway after another they pursued the short, cowled figures, only ever catching fleeting glimpses, never seeming to close with their quarry.
"By heck!" panted Penniforth. "They're fast! Who are they? Why are we chasin' them?"
"I don't know! There's just something odd about them! There!" Burton pointed ahead to where the four flowing shapes passed through an aura of light cast by a solitary gas lamp.
They pounded along until they reached the patch of brightness and there Burton skidded to a halt. He bent and quickly examined the mud. There were four sets of footprints in it.
"They're running barefoot on the balls of their feet and-look at this! triangular pads and four toes, and, if I'm not mistaken, these indentations indicate claws! They're the loups-garous, Monty!"
A terrified shout suddenly echoed from somewhere close.
Without another word, Burton plunged ahead. Monty followed, pulling the pistol from inside his greatcoat.
They emerged into a cobbled square with the vague mist-shrouded mouths of alleyways opening into each of its sides.
A man and a boy stood in its centre. The four robed figures were circling them with a predatory lope. Liquid snarling reached Burton's ears.
"For God's sake, 'elp us!" pleaded the man. "They're going to-"
One of the things swooped forward and leaped onto his chest, momentarily obscuring him with its red robe. Then it dropped back and stalked away, leaving him standing there, his throat missing.
A fountain of blood arced out and splashed onto the cobbles.
The boy let loose a wailing cry.
The man dropped to his knees then keeled over onto his face, blood pooling around him.
Penniforth raised his pistol and fired.
The detonation sounded terrific as it echoed from the walls.
The shot missed its target-Burton clearly saw the edge of a red brick explode as the bullet hit it-but, unexpectedly, as if set off by the noise, one of the creatures suddenly burst into flames which raged with such intensity that, within seconds, the figure was reduced to ashes before their eyes.
The remaining three creatures, in unison, sprang upon the boy. He screeched and struggled.
Penniforth fired again, hitting one of the creatures in the arm.
It howled and released its grip on the youngster, whirled, and bounded toward the big cabbie. As it did so, its hood fell back.
Burton jumped forward to intercept it and saw a diabolical face with a furrowed brow, deeply set bloodshot eyes gleaming above a wrinkled snout, a huge drooling mouth filled with long sharp canines, and a shaggy head of tangled hair out of which pointed ears projected.
The pistol banged again, its flash reflected in the thing's eyes as it ducked down, jumped up, and swiped at Burton. He felt an impact on the side of his head. The square somersaulted. Bells rang in his ears. He thudded into the ground and, through a shrinking tunnel of darkness, saw the writhing, screaming boy carried out of sight; saw a pistol fall and clatter onto the cobbles; saw a shower of red; saw-nothing.
"Hold on to this," whispered a heavily accented voice in his ear. A scrap of paper was pushed into his hand. His fingers closed around it automatically. For a moment he thought it had been handed to him by Arthur Findlay, and he knew the words written upon it.
John Speke had shot himself in the head.
Footsteps milling around.
"Where you going, Gus?"
"Anywhere that I don't have to look at that mess!"
Hands lifting him, holding him upright; fingers wandering from pocket to pocket.
"Steady, old-timer," said a hoarse voice.
Something moving in his belt.
"Bugger me, lookit this-anuvver pistol!" Deep voice.
"Let's see that!" Hoarse voice.
"Check if it's loaded." Whiny voice.
The sound of running footsteps as someone departed in a hurry.
"Oy! Come back wiv that, you thievin' git!" Whiny voice.
"Ah, let the silly sod scarper; we'll catch up wiv 'im later." Deep voice.
"Hey, Dad, you wiv us?" Whiny voice.
Burton opened his eyes.
A fat, greasy individual was supporting him by the left arm; a small pockmarked man, with legs distorted by rickets, held his right. People were standing around, holding candles or oil lamps, some looking at him, others staring at the mess on the cobbles where a butcher's cart had dropped its load of offal.
Burton doubled over and vomited for the fourth time that night.
The two men, Hoarse Voice and Whiny Voice, backed away, cursing.
The king's agent, remembering his disguise, straightened but kept his back hunched. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and looked again at the ripped and shredded intestines and organs that were spread messily across the cobbles. His eyes followed their long, bloody trail, past the outspread legs, across the torn thigh with its bone glinting wetly in the lamplight, and into the hollowed-out rib cage.
Above tattered scraps of coat and shirt and skin, the glazed eyes of Montague Penniforth stared up through the fog at whatever lay beyond.
"It were the dog things," hissed Whiny Voice.
A gaunt, elderly man limped forward. He had a peg leg and three fingers missing from his right hand.
"Where are you from, Mister?" he said, in a surprisingly gentle voice.
"Mile End," mumbled Burton.
"You've been lucky-the dogs didn't kill you."
"They weren't dogs. And they took a little kid," said the king's agent, noticing the corpse of the child's companion.
"They always do. Why don't you get off 'ome? We'll sort this lot out."
"Sort it out? What do yer mean?"
"I mean we'll get rid o' the stiffs; beggin yer pardin if that fella was yer boy."
"What'll yer do with them?"
Burton knew what that meant: what was left of Monty would be thrown into the Thames.
He put a hand to his forehead. How many deaths must he have on his conscience? First Lieutenant Stroyan in Berbera; then Speke, who must surely have died by now; and, tonight, Montague Penniforth.
He felt sick; he hadn't bargained for this, but what could he do? He couldn't call the police-or even an undertaker to come and collect Monty's remains. No matter how much he wanted the big cabbie to receive a decent burial-and Lord knows he'd willingly pay for it himself-there was no way to get the cadaver out of the East End without arousing suspicion; and if his disguise failed him, he himself would probably end up in the river.
His head throbbed. He felt wet blood in his hair.
He dropped his hand and clenched it, fingernails digging into his palm. In the other hand, something got in their way. The note from Findlay!
No, wait, not from Findlay-so, from whom?
He waited until Throaty Voice, Whiny Voice, and Peg-Leg were distracted, then surreptitiously unscrewed the paper and glanced at the words on it: Mes yeux discernent mieux les choses que la puplart ici. Je vois a travers votre masque. Rencontrez moi vers la Thames, an bout de Mews Street dans moins dune heure.
My eyes are more discerning than most here, Burton translated rapidly. I see through your mask. Meet me at the Thames end of Mews Street within the hour.
He put the note in his pocket and moved over to Peg-Leg's side.
"'Ere, mate, I gotta get to Mews Street," he grumbled in a low voice. "Which way is it?"
"What's yer business there?" asked Peg-Leg, his rheumy eyes looking Burton up and down.
"My business, that's what!" responded Burton.
"All right, fella, no need to get shirty. That alley over there-take it down to the river then turn right 'n' follow the bank-side road 'til you come to a pawn shop what's closed an' boarded up. That's the corner of Mews Street. You gonna be all right on yer own? You know yer shooter got pinched?"
"Yus, the thievin' bastards. I'll manage, matey. Me bruvver is expectin' me an' I'm already a good five hours late!"
"Stopped off at a boozer, hey?"
"Sorry abaht yet boy, Dad. Fucking bad way to go."
Burton forced himself to give a heartless East End shrug and moved away, shuffling into the clouded mouth of the alley that the one-legged man had indicated. The increasing distance between himself and Penniforth strained behind him; stretched to its snapping point-but didn't snap. It, like Stroyan's death and Speke's suicide, would pull at his heart for the rest of his life; he knew that, and he realised the commission he'd received from Palmerston-to be "king's agent"-carried with it a terribly heavy price.
The alley was cramped, almost entirely devoid of light, and ran crookedly down a slight slope toward the river. Burton kept his fingers on the right-hand wall and allowed it to guide him. He repeatedly stumbled over prone bodies. Some cursed when his foot struck them; others moaned; most remained silent.
His mouth felt sour with vomit and alcohol. The toxic fog burned his eyes and nostrils. He wanted to go home and forget this disastrous expedition. He wanted to forget all his disastrous expeditions.
Dammit, Burton! Settle down! Become consul in Fernando Po, Brazil, Damascus, and wherever the fuck else they send you! Write your damned books!
He walked on, and when a man stepped into his path and said, "'Oo do we 'ave 'ere, then?" Burton didn't reply or miss a step but simply rammed a fist as hard as he could into the man's stomach. He kept going, leaving the wretch lying in the fetal position behind him.
Every few yards, his hand fell away from the wall as he encountered junctions with other passages. Each time, he walked ahead keeping his arm outstretched until he came to the opposite corner. Eventually, instead of a corner, he found railings spanning his path, and by the intensity of the stench realised that he'd crossed the Thames-side road and was beside the river. He returned to the other side of the street, found the wall, and staggered on in a westward direction.
As he pushed on through the bilious fog, the fumes seeped into his bloodstream, starving his brain of oxygen. He began to feel a familiar sensation, a feeling which had haunted his malarial deliriums in Africa. It was the notion that he was a divided identity; that two persons existed within him, ever fighting to thwart and oppose each other.
The death of Penniforth became their battlefield. Pervading guilt struggled with a savage desire for revenge; the impulse to flee from this king's agent role wrestled with the determination to find out where the loups-garous came from and why they were, apparently, abducting children.
The word was hissed from a doorway.
Burton stopped and fought a sudden wave of dizziness. He could just about make out a figure crouched in a rectangle of denser shadow.
"Monsieur!" came the whisper again.
"Dore?" he said, softly.
Burton moved into the doorway and said, in French: "How did you recognise me, Dore?"
"Pah! You think you can fool an artist's eye with a dab of stage makeup and a toupee? I have seen your picture in the newspaper, Monsieur Burton. I could not mistake you; those sullen eyes, the cheekbones, the fierce mouth. You have the brow of a god and the jaw of a devil!"
Burton grunted. "What are you doing here, Dore? The East End is no place for a Frenchman."
"I am not merely a Frenchman; I am an artist."
"And you possess a cast-iron stomach if you can put up with the stink of this place."
"I have grown used to it."
In the absence of anything but the dimmest of lights-from three red blemishes floating over the nearby riverbank, perhaps the lights of a merchant vessel or barge-Burton could barely see the Frenchman. He had a vague impression of rags, a long beard, and wild hair.
"You look like an old vagrant."
"Mais out! I owe my survival to that fact! They think I possess nothing, so they leave me alone, and quietly and secretly I draw them. But you, Monsieur-why are you in the Cauldron? It is because of the loups-garous, no?"
"Yes. I've been commissioned to find out where they come from and what they are doing."
"Where they come from I do not know, but what they are doing? They are stealing the chimney sweeps."
"They're doing what?"
"Mais je to jure que c'est vrai! These loups-garous, they are most particular. They take children but not any children-just the boys who work as sweeps."
"Why the devil would werewolves kidnap chimney sweeps?"
"This question I cannot answer. You should see the Beetle."
"Who-or what-is the Beetle?"
"He is the president of the League of Chimney Sweeps."
"They have a league?"
"Out, Monsieur. I regret, though, that I know not where you should look for the boy."
"My young friend Quips might know."
"He is a sweep?"
"No, a newsboy."
"Ah, out out, he will know. These children, they-what is the expres- sion?-'stick together,' no? I have heard that a word given to one is passed to the next and the next and spreads across your Empire faster than a fire through a dry forest."
"It's true. Anything else, Monsieur Dore? You know nothing of where the loups-garous come from?"
"Mais non. I can tell you that they have been hunting here for two months and that their raids now come every night, but I can tell you no more. I must go. It is late and I am tired."
"Very well. Thank you for your time, Monsieur. Please be careful. I understand that art is your life, but I would not like to hear that you had died for it."
"You will not. I am nearly finished here. The sketches I have taken, Monsieur Burton-they will make me famous!"
"I'll keep an eye open for your work," replied Burton. "Tell me, how can I get out of the Cauldron?"
"Keep going along this road; that way-" He pointed, a vague motion in the darkness. "It is not far. You will come to the bridge."
"Thank you. Good-bye, Monsieur Dore. Be safe."
"Au revoir, Monsieur Burton."
It was past five in the morning by the time Sir Richard Francis Burton collapsed onto his bed and into a deep sleep.
After his meeting with the French artist, he'd made his way past the Tower of London, following the fog-dulled cacophony of the ever-awake London Docks until he reached London Bridge. He'd then walked northward away from the Thames. As the river receded behind him, the murk thinned somewhat and a greater number of working gas lamps enabled him to better get his bearings. He trudged all the way to Liverpool Street and there waved down a hansom of the old horse-pulled variety.
At home, under the conviction that his malaria was about to flare up again, he'd dosed himself with quinine before divesting himself of the disguise and washing the soot from his face. Then, gratefully, he slid between crisp, clean sheets and fell into a deep sleep.
He dreamed of Isabel.
It was a strange dream. He was standing on a low rocky hill overlooking Damascus and a black horse was pounding up the slope toward him, its hooves drumming noisily on the ground. As it came closer, he saw that it was ridden by Isabel, who was wrapped in Arabian clothing and rode not as a woman, sidesaddle, but as a man. She radiated strength and happiness.
The animal skidded to a halt and reared before coming to rest in front of him, its sweat-flecked sides heaving.
Isabel reached up and pulled aside her veil.
"Hurry, Dick-you'll be late!" she urged, in her deep contralto voice.
From behind him he heard a distant noise, a clacking. He wanted to turn to see what it was but she stopped him.
"No! There's no time! You have to come with me!"
The sound was drawing closer.
"Dick! Come on!"
Now he noticed that there was a second horse, tethered to Isabel's. She gestured at it, urging him to mount.
Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack!
What was that? He started to turn.
"No, Dick! No!"
Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack!
He twisted and looked up at the hill behind him. A freakish figure was bounding down it, approaching fast, taking huge leaps.
Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack!
The sound of its stilts hitting the rock.
The thing gave an insane and triumphant yell, its red eyes blazing.
Burton awoke with a start and sat up.
Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack!
A moment's disorientation, then he recognised the sound: someone was hammering at the front door. He glanced at the pocket watch on his bedside table as he dragged himself out of the warm sheets. It was seven o'clock. He'd been asleep for less than two hours.
He threw his jubbah around himself, the long and loose outer garment he'd worn while on his pilgrimage to Mecca that he now used as a night robe, and headed down the stairs.
Mrs. Angell reached the front door before him and he could hear her indignant tones as he descended.
"Have you come to arrest him? No? Then your business can wait until a more civilised hour!" she was saying.
"I'm most dreadfully sorry, ma'am," came a male voice, "but it's a police emergency. Captain Burton's presence is required."
"Where?" demanded Burton as he reached the last flight of stairs and started down them.
"Ah, Captain!" exclaimed the visitor, a young constable, stepping into the hall.
"Sir!" objected Mrs. Angell.
"It's all right, Mother," said Burton. "Come in, Constable-?"
"Come up to my study. Mrs. Angell, back to bed with you."
The old woman looked from one man to the other. "Should I make a pot of tea first?"
Burton glanced enquiringly at Kapoor but the constable shook his head and said, "There's no time, sir; but thank you, ma'am."
The landlady bobbed and returned to her basement domain while the two men climbed the stairs and entered the study.
Burton made to light the fire but the policeman stopped him with a gesture.
"Would you dress as fast as possible, please, Captain Burton? Spring Heeled Jack has attacked again!"
Detective Inspector Trounce would like you at the scene as quickly as possible, Captain," said Constable Kapoor. "I have a rotorchair waiting for you outside."
"Where did the attack occur?" asked Burton.
"Near Chislehurst. I'll wait here, sir."
Without further ado, Burton raced up to his bedroom, poured water from a jug into a basin, and splashed it onto his face, scrubbing away the last vestiges of soot, before hurriedly dressing. His body was aching after having maintained an old man's posture for so many hours, and his mind felt sluggish from lack of sleep, though he knew from past experience that it would clear soon enough. He had the ability to defer sleep when necessary, often going for days at a time without any before then taking to his bed for a prolonged bout of unconsciousness.
He joined Constable Kapoor on the first landing and they descended to the hall, where Burton put on his overcoat and top hat and picked up his cane. At the policeman's recommendation, he wrapped a scarf around his throat. They left the house.
The sun had risen and was sending lazy shafts of light into the pale yellow fog. Black flakes were suspended in the pall, neither falling nor swirling about.
Two rotorchairs waited at the side of the road. Burton was surprised he hadn't heard them land but then remembered his dream and the sound of hooves thudding up the hill.
"One was flown by me, the other by another constable who's gone back to the Yard," explained Kapoor. "Have you been in one before?"
"It's quite simple to operate, Captain," said the policeman, and, as they came to the nearest rotorchair, he quickly ran through the controls.
Burton inspected the contraption. It looked like a big studded leather armchair such as could be found in gentlemen's clubs and private libraries. It was affixed to a sledlike frame of polished wood and brass, the runners of which curled up gracefully at either end. In the forward part of this frame, from a control box situated just in front of a footboard, three levers, similar to those found in railway signal boxes but curved, angled back to the driver's position. The middle lever controlled altitude, while those to either side of it steered the vehicle to the left or right. The footboard, when pressed forward with the toes, increased the rotorchair's velocity and forward motion; when pressed backward with the heels, slowed the vehicle; and when pushed all the way back, caused it to hover.
Affixed to the back of the chair, a vaguely umbrella-like canopy protected the driver from the downdraught caused by the four short, flat, and wide wings which rotated at the top of a shaft rising from the engine; this situated behind the chair. This engine was a larger version of the ones used for velocipedes and operated with the same remarkable efficiency.
Kapoor handed Burton a pair of round leather-lined goggles.
"You'll need to wear these, Captain, and you'll have to fly hatless unless you want to lose your topper. There's a storage compartment under the seat. Put it there with your cane, then we'll get going."
Burton did as advised, then climbed into the chair and secured himself with the belt attached to it.
"I'll ascend first and wait for you above the fog," said the constable. He moved to the back of the vehicle and the explorer heard him fiddling with the engine, which coughed into life and started to quietly chug, making the seat vibrate.
Moments later, a second engine spluttered and roared, its pitch and volume increasing rapidly, to be joined seconds later by a rattling thrum, like the noise of a snare drum.
The fog rolled away, revealing a wide expanse of Montagu Place. A gentleman, suddenly exposed on the opposite pavement, clutched at the brim of his hat.
The racket faded upward and tendrils of vapour came snaking back toward Burton.
He allowed a minute to pass then took hold of the middle lever and gently pulled it while simultaneously pressing his toes down softly on the footboard. The wings above his head jerked, turned, began to rotate, then suddenly transformed into a circular blur.
The fog whipped away again.
The rotorchair scraped over the cobbles then slid into the air. The ground dropped away and vanished as the mist closed up beneath the vehicle. Strangely, there was very little sense of movement.
Entombed in the cloud, Burton felt as if he'd been transported to Limbo, until suddenly his rotorchair burst out of it and he was dazzled by the low morning sun. Grabbing at the left lever, he yanked it to turn the vehicle away from the blazing orb. The rotorchair gyrated crazily. He clutched at the right lever, struggled to stabilise the car, and eventually got it under control.
The blanket of fog stretched from horizon to horizon. Though dirty, it was made eye-wateringly bright by the sun.
Burton experimented with the controls until he felt comfortable with them then turned the rotorchair slowly until it faced Constable Kapoor's machine. A column of steam, like an umbilical cord, streamed from the policeman's vehicle to the cloud below.
For a moment they hovered, facing each other, then the policeman banked his machine and flew off in a southeasterly direction. Burton followed the leading vehicle's white plume. He took deep breaths of the wonderfully fresh air, feeling his tiredness dissipate as the oxygen cleaned out the night's contaminations.
The rotorchairs picked up speed and flew across the enshrouded city; over Soho, the Thames, and Waterloo Bridge, Elephant and Castle, Peckham, and on to Lewisham, where the thick pall below started to break up, revealing glimpses of houses, streets, and gardens.
Burton had never flown before and he was thoroughly enjoying the sensation. He thought of John Speke sitting in a box kite being towed by a giant swan over East Africa and felt a pang of jealousy-then intense regret. Bismillah! It was only three days ago that he'd learned John had shot himself!
Soon, woods and tracts of cultivated land started to separate the clumps of houses and the fog retreated, reduced to a white mist, which lay in heavier ribbons along the courses of rivers, canals, and streams.
The rotorchair ahead of Burton started to lose altitude. He gently pushed the middle lever and felt his own machine sink.
They flew on for a mile, past the outskirts of Chislehurst, then Kapoor angled his machine slightly more eastward and descended, with Burton following. They landed in a field near cottages on the edge of a village, which Burton would later learn was named Mickleham. There were six rotorchairs already parked on the grass beside a mud-caked traction engine to which a plough was attached.
Even before the wings of Kapoor's rotorchair had stopped spinning, the young constable was out of it and sprinting across the grass to where a couple of policemen stood by a garden gate outside a ramshackle old dwelling. He spoke to them briefly then came running back, reaching Burton just as he stepped out of his machine.
"No!" he shouted above the noise of the engines. "We have to go up again!"
"Spring Heeled Jack is still in the area! They've chased him northward. We'll have to circle, see if we can spot anything. We'll spread out and fly low, Captain, cover as much ground as we can. Look out for a group of villagers and policemen-but keep me in sight and head my way if you see me land!"
Burton jumped back into the rotorchair, buckled himself in, and powered up the wings. He took off and followed Kapoor. The vapour trails they'd made on their way to the field were still hanging in the air.
Burton bore to the west until the other machine was a mere speck in the sky off to his right, with an irregular white line extending out behind it. They flew back past Chislehurst, the king's agent peering at the landscape to the right, left, and ahead.
Five minutes later he saw figures gathered on a golf course. He steered his rotorchair toward it and, as he approached and descended, saw that it was a crowd of constables and townspeople. The latter were milling about, brandishing shovels and broom handles.
People scattered as he landed the machine, thudding into the grass rather too heavily.
A burly man came running over; it was Detective Inspector Trounce.
"Captain Burton!" he yelled. "It's gone into Marvel's Wood, there!"-he waved his cane at a wide expanse of forest on the eastern edge of the course"Fly over, see if you can drive it out!"
The king's agent nodded and took to the air again.
As his machine slid over the trees, he flew it as low as he dared, sending loose leaves flying in every direction as branches whipped about beneath the rotorchair's downdraught. Leaning over the side, Burton scanned the woods below, seeing flashes of the ground through the foliage. He passed at a slow speed around the outer part of the wood then began to spiral inward.
Despite his heavy overcoat, he was feeling cold. The past few days had pushed his body too far; he'd been drunk, attacked, and beaten; had spent an entire night in the noxious atmosphere of the East End; and had slept a mere two hours. The quinine he'd taken might stave off a malarial attack but he was nevertheless concerned; he needed proper rest.
Something moved below but he'd flown past before he could see what it was. He dug his heels into the footboard, bringing the rotorchair to a stop, then turned it around to face the way he'd come. To avoid flying back into his machine's trail of steam, he reduced his altitude until the runners were brushing the tops of the trees, then inched forward while looking down through the agitated branches.
Burton was leaning over the right side when the rotorchair suddenly lurched heavily to the left, shaking horribly as the wings sliced into twigs and leaves. His toes instinctively pressed hard on the footboard and he yanked back the middle lever, sending the rotorchair soaring upward, spinning wildly on its axis. As he fought with the levers, he became aware, through the edge of his goggles, of a large shape clinging to the side of the machine, unbalancing it.
He turned his head and looked into the eyes of Spring Heeled Jack.
The creature's mouth was moving as if shouting something but, though its face was very close to Burton's, the words were obliterated by the roar of the engines and the drumming of the wings. It reached out and grabbed his wrist.
The rotorchair spiralled downward.
Burton struggled to free himself but everything was happening too fast. He'd barely registered the presence of Spring Heeled Jack before the rotorchair plunged into the woods, keeling over sideways, its wings snapping and shooting away, one arcing high into the air, the others clattering through the branches.
The vehicle twisted and tumbled, knocking its driver this way and that as it fell through the foliage, hit the ground back-end first, then toppled onto its side and came to rest.
Steam screamed through a rent in its boiler and Burton, shaken but conscious enough to fear an explosion, fumbled with the buckle straps, finally released them, and crawled out of and away from the machine.
He lay panting, facedown in the loam.
Rustling footsteps approached and, as Burton rolled over onto his back, a foot-or, rather, a stilt-was placed to either side of him.
Spring Heeled Jack, light dappling his face, stood astride the king's agent and gazed down at him. He squatted.
"Who are you?" the creature asked.
Blue flame formed a corona around its head; sparks spat from its chest. The eyes blazed with madness.
"You know damned well who I am," said Burton.
"I don't. I've never seen you before, though I must admit, I feel I should know you."
"Never seen me! You gave me this damned black eye!"
Even as he said it, though, Burton thought about Trounce's suggestion that there might be more than one of the stilted creatures. "Or maybe that was your brother?" he added.
The creature grinned. "I don't have a brother. I don't even have parents!"
It threw back its head and let loose a peal of insane laughter, then looked down and ran its eyes over Burton's face.
"Where have I seen you before?" it muttered. "Famous, are you?"
"Comparatively," answered Burton. He started using his feet and elbows to shift himself out from between Spring Heeled Jack's stilts, but the thing reached down and grasped the front of his coat.
"Stay still," it commanded. "Yes, I know you now. Sir Richard Francis Burton! One of the great Victorians!"
"What the hell is a Victorian?"
Shouts sounded in the distance-the police and townspeople approaching -and, beyond them, the thrum of Constable Kapoor's rotorchair.
"Listen, Burton," hissed Jack. "I have no idea why you're here but you have to leave me alone to do what I have to do. I know it's not a good thing but I don't mean the girls any harm. If you or anyone else stops me, I can't get back and I won't be able to repair the damage. Everything will stay this way-and it's wrong! It's all wrong! This is not the way things are meant to be! Do you understand?"
Burton shook his head. "Not in the slightest. Let me up, damn it!"
Jack hesitated then released his grip. Burton slid from between the stilts and scrambled to his feet, looking up at the strange apparition.
Spring Heeled Jack was a man, he could see that now, but his costume was bizarre and there was an unearthly air about him.
"So what exactly is it you need to do?" he asked the stilt-walker.
"Restore, Burton! Restore!"
"Myself. You. Everything! Do you honestly think the world should have talking orangutans in it? Isn't it obvious to you that something is desperately wrong?"
"Talking orang-?" began Burton.
"Captain Burton!" interrupted a distant shout. Detective Inspector Trounce.
The chopping of Kapoor's rotorchair was close now. Jack looked up through the canopy of leaves overhead.
"The mist has cleared and the sun is high enough. I should be able to recharge."
"Charge at what? You're speaking in riddles, man!" barked the king's agent.
"Time to go," muttered Jack, then suddenly burst into laughter. "Time to go!"
Burton leaped at him but Jack sidestepped swiftly and the explorer crashed past, landing in a tangle of roots. He rolled to his feet just as Jack flashed by and made off into the trees.
"Bloody hell!" cursed Burton, and set off in pursuit.
Despite having to duck under low branches, his quarry moved fast, taking long loping strides, while Burton was hampered by projecting roots, tangled vines, and his own exhaustion. He managed to keep up until Jack burst out of the trees onto the golf course some way north of where the police and townsfolk were milling about; there Jack started to bound ahead on his spring-loaded stilts.
A police whistle blew and a roar went up from the crowd, which, waving makeshift weapons, surged after the strangely costumed man.
Burton stopped and watched, puzzled.
Rather than running away, Spring Heeled Jack seemed to be circling the golf course, almost as if he were toying with his pursuers. Only Constable Kapoor, in his rotorchair, could keep pace with him, but there was little he could do but follow.
"What the devil are you playing at?" muttered Burton, as Jack, who'd receded into the distance, turned southward and hopped along the edge of the course before then changing direction to race northeastward, back toward Burton, who stood on the border of the wood.
The king's agent ran out to intercept him only to have Jack spring a clear fifteen feet over his head.
"Stay out of it, Burton!" shouted the stilt-man.
He took six long bounds, then suddenly launched himself high into the air until, twenty feet up, and just in front of Kapoor's rotorchair, he vanished.
Burton had the impression of some sort of bubble momentarily forming around Jack, its edge touching the front of the flying machine. When it, and the stilt-man, disappeared, so did part of the vehicle.
The rotorchair flew apart and, leaving a spiralling ribbon of steam behind it, plunged to the ground, which it hit with an appalling crash. The boiler exploded and pieces of metal went spinning into the air.
From different directions, Burton, Trounce, and a number of constables ran over to the wreckage.
Constable Kapoor's broken body dangled from the upside-down seat, his expression frozen in shock, blood streaming from his torn flesh down his neck, across his face, over his motionless eyes, and into his hair, from whence it dribbled onto the ripped turf.
"God damn it," breathed Detective Inspector Trounce, leaning with both hands upon his cane. "He was going to be promoted next week."
He stood deep in thought for a moment then shook himself and spoke to a nearby constable.
"Bennett, fetch Sergeant Piper, would you?"
The constable nodded and moved away.
"What the blazes is that thing, Captain Burton?" asked Trounce.
"A man, of that I'm certain," responded the famous explorer. "And a madman, at that."
"The same as I saw at the assassination?"
"It can't be-he didn't appear old enough."
"Great heavens, this is too bizarre! What happened in the woods?"
"He spoke nonsense; said I was a Victorian."
"I haven't the vaguest idea, though it's fair to assume it has something to do with the late queen. He said that if we stop him doing what he needs to do, everything will stay this way, and what he needs to do is `restore."'
"`Myself. You. Everything,' whatever that means. Then he mentioned talking orangutans and said he had to charge at something again."
Trounce shrugged. "None of it makes any sense! It's the ravings of a lunatic!"
"I don't disagree," said Burton.
Trounce turned to an approaching police sergeant who saluted smartly.
"Ah, Piper, the men seem to have the crowd under control."
"Yes, sir. I think they'll be off to their homes soon, now that the jumping man has gone."
"Good. Good. I want you to post a couple of men here and organise for poor Kapoor to be transported to the morgue."
"Right you are, sir. He was a fine man. I'll see to it that he's not left here any longer than needs be."
"Thank you. Captain Burton, would you come with me please? There are a couple of police velocipedes over by the club house; we'll ride them back to Mickleham. I want you to meet the girl who was attacked. Oh, and by the way, Sir Richard Mayne assigned me to the Spring Heeled Jack case, and I suspect I'm indebted to you for that. My gratitude."
"Best man for the job," said Burton, succinctly. "Wait a moment while I retrieve my hat and cane."
He returned to his stricken rotorchair for the items, then rejoined Trounce, who sent four constables into the woods to drag the vehicle out.
The two men started toward the club house.
"Who's the girl?" asked Burton.
"Her name is Angela Tew. Fifteen years old. That's about as much as I know at the moment. Before dawn this morning a parakeet arrived at Scotland Yard. It'd been sent by Mickleham's bobby and stated that the girl had been attacked by the fabled Spring Heeled Jack. I was roused from my bed at about a quarter past six and dashed down here with a few men by rotorchair, having first sent Kapoor to fetch you. When we got here the villagers were on the rampage. They'd spotted Jack loitering at the edge of a field and chased him around the outskirts of Chislehurst and as far as Marvel's Wood. We ran along with them. Idiot that I am, I left the rotorchairs parked in Mickleham and by the time I realised how useful they'd be, it was too late to go back for them. I'm still not accustomed to the damned things, Captain. If I'd had horses, I'd have employed them without a second thought, but, frankly, this new technology is difficult for a traditional old bobby like me to cope with. Anyway, you arrived just as we reached the golf course. So now let's see the girl and find out what happened."
"It's strange," mused Burton, as they came to the club house and approached a line of police velocipedes parked outside it, guarded by a constable. "He has this supernatural ability to vanish into thin air, which I've witnessed twice now, so why didn't he do so straightaway?"
"I have no idea," answered Trounce, then said to the policeman, "Constable, I have to commandeer a couple of penny-farthings."
"That's quite all right, sir-help yourself," replied his subordinate.
Burton stepped to one of the boneshakers and unclipped a small bellows from the side of its furnace. He inserted the nozzle into a valve and started pumping until steam began to vent from another valve set in the small boiler just below the engine. Then he placed the bellows back in its holder, twisted a toggle switch on the engine, and gave the small wheel beside it a couple of turns. The piston rod jerked and smoke puffed from the two tall, thin funnels. He heard the whine of the gyroscope and kicked the parking stand up; the velocipede didn't need it anymore.
Holding on to the frame, Burton placed his left foot on the lower mounting bar, heaved himself up, swung himself between the front wheel and the funnels, slipped his right foot into the right stirrup, then boosted himself up into the saddle and put his left foot into the left stirrup. It was done in one smooth motion and, though the penny-farthing rocked, the gyroscope kept it stable.
He looked to his right and saw that Trounce had also mounted and was in the act of slipping his cane into the holder affixed for that purpose to the vehicle's frame.
Both men released the brakes. The piston arms moved slowly at first but rapidly picked up speed, the crank pins whirled, steam hissed, the men engaged the gears, and the velocipedes went panting into the road.
"Spring Heeled Jack made mention of the fact that the mist had cleared and the sun was up," called Burton, as they clattered toward Mickleham. "It seemed significant to him."
"Are you suggesting that he can't vanish at night?" returned Trounce.
"No. Remember, the first time I saw him he did vanish at night!"
"I don't know!"
"This business presents one confounded puzzle after another!" exclaimed Trounce.
They came to the outskirts of Chislehurst, rode through the town, now abustle with the morning market, out the other side, and down a country lane toward the village.
The mist had dispersed entirely and the sky was a jumbled mass of clouds with patches of blue sky occasionally peeking through.
From the brow of a low hill, Burton recognised Mickleham ahead, and a few minutes later he and Detective Inspector Trounce parked their velocipedes at the side of the same field the king's agent had landed in earlier that morning.
The two constables were still on duty by the gate of the ramshackle cottage. It was to this that Trounce led Burton.
The Yard man knocked on the front door and it was opened by a man in corduroy trousers, shirt, and suspenders, with tousled hair, long sideburns, and wire-framed spectacles.
"Police?" he asked, in a lowered voice.
"Yes, sir. I'm Detective Inspector Trounce of Scotland Yard. This is my associate, Captain Burton. You are Mr. Tew?"
"Yes. Edward. Come in."
They stepped across the threshold and found that the door opened directly into a fairly cramped and low-roofed sitting room. On a threadbare sofa, a pretty young girl lay within her mother's protective embrace. The woman was large, matronly, tearful, and shaking uncontrollably. The girl was wide-eyed and, thought Burton, rather too thin.
"Angela, these are policemen from London," said Edward Tew, gently.
"She can't speak. She's too upset," interrupted the mother. "I know what she feels! I know!"
"Quiet now, Tilly," said Tew. "The girl is calm enough now. Go make a pot of tea; give the gentlemen room to sit down."
"No! Leave her alone. I-she-she can't talk!"
"Yes I can, Mother," whispered the girl.
The woman turned and kissed her daughter's cheek; held her hands.
"Are you sure? You don't have to. It'll just be questions, questions, questions!"
"Tilly, please!" snapped Edward Tew.
"It's all right, Mother," whispered the girl.
With a sniff and lowered eyes, the mother nodded, stood, and left the room.
"Sit with your daughter, Mr. Tew," said Trounce, gesturing to the sofa as he lowered himself onto a wooden chair next to a small table on which a vase of flowers stood. Tew did so, while Burton sat in the single armchair.
"Now then, it's Angela, isn't it?" the detective asked, in a kindly voice.
"Yes, sir," answered the girl, quietly.
"Would you tell me what happened? Try not to miss anything out. Every detail is important."
Angela Tew nodded, and her throat worked convulsively for a moment.
"I work as maid for the Longthorns, sir, them what lives in the grand old house on Saint Paul's Wood Hill. I was agoing there this morning and left here at-at-"
"At about ten to five," put in her father. "She works from five in the morning until two in the afternoon. Go on, Angey."
"So I took me the short cut through Hoblingwell Wood."
"Isn't it rather dark at that time of morning?" asked Trounce. "Dark, I mean, to be wandering through the woods?"
"It's very dark, sir, aye, but the path is straight and I takes an oil lamp with me to light the way. I goes that way all the time, I does."
"And what happened?"
"I was a good way along the path when a man stepped out from the trees. I couldn't see him properly, so I lifted the lamp and I says, `Who's that there?' Then I saw he was very tall and had big long legs like one of them circus folks what walks on sticks. I tells you, sir, round here we all know the stories about the ghost what's called Spring Heeled Jack and I ain't stupid. I saw what he was and recognised him straight off from the tales. So I turned and started arunning as fast as I could but I hardly got two steps afore he grabbed me up from behind and clapped his hand over me mouth. Then he-he-"
She put her arm across her face, hiding her eyes in her elbow. "I can't say it, Father!"
Edward Tew patted his daughter's back and looked pleadingly at Detective Inspector Trounce. The Yard man nodded and Tew took up the story.
"Jumping Jack took the neck of her dress at the front and ripped it down to her waist, taking her underclothes with it. He turned her and bent her backward, putting his face-" A muffled sob came from the girl and Tew blinked rapidly, his mouth opening and closing. He looked at his two visitors and touched the middle of his chest.
"Here," he whispered.
Burton clenched his jaw. The girl was only fifteen!
She looked up suddenly, and angrily smeared the tears from her cheeks with the heels of her hands.
"He bent me backward until I thought I might break in half. Then he let me up a little, looked into me face with them terrible eyes of his, and he said: `Not you."'
The king's agent leaned forward eagerly. "Miss Tew, this is very important: are you absolutely sure that's what he said?"
She nodded. "Clear as a bell it was. `Not you!' he said. Then he let go of me and hopped away like a horrible big cricket."
"Before you screamed?"
"Yes. I didn't give voice, sir, until I was at the garden gate. I was arunning too hard."
Burton and Trounce looked at one another.
"Did he say anything else?" asked Burton, turning back to the girl.
"Can you describe him for me?"
The girl gave a description that exactly matched the man Burton had just encountered in Marvel's Wood.
A few minutes later, the two men left the cottage. As he stepped out, Burton cast a glance back and saw the mother, Tilly Tew, standing in the opposite doorway. She was looking at him with a strangely furtive expression on her face.
They opened the gate and walked back into the field.
"Odd," said Trounce. "In past attacks, he's always done a bunk after being interrupted. You'll remember the case of Mary Stevens, for example. She screamed, people came running, and Jack skedaddled."
"Probably not the same Jack, Inspector."
"Well, be that as it may, this time he put his hand over her mouth, the assault was conducted in relative silence, and no one came to her assistance. Yet he didn't-for want of a better expression-go all the way. Instead, he tore her dress and got a good eyeful-but then let her go. Why?"
"He said, 'Not you'-which suggests he was looking for a specific girl and got the wrong one. I have to return to London. Can I take one of the rotorchairs?"
"Help yourself. Park it outside your house and I'll send a constable along for it later. What's your next move?"
"Sleep. I'm exhausted and my malaria is threatening to take hold. And you?"
"I'm going to talk some more with the Tew family. I'm looking for a link between his victims."
"Good man. We'll talk again soon, Trounce."
"I'm certain of it-our spring-heeled friend will be back, you can be sure of that. Where will he appear, though? That's the question. Where?"
"One more thing, Inspector," said Burton. "Pay close attention to the mother, Tilly. There was something about her expression when we left that leads me to suspect she knows more than she's letting on!"
Conquer thyself, till thou has done this, thou art but a slave; for it is almost as well to be subjected to another' s appetite as to thine own.
By two o'clock that afternoon, Burton was back at work. He'd slept for a couple of hours, washed, dressed, and eaten lunch, and had then sent two messages: one by runner to the prime minister requesting an audience; the other by parakeet to Swinburne asking him to call early that evening.
An hour later, a reply from 10 Downing Street landed on his windowsill.
"Message from that degenerate idle-headed lout Lord Palmerston. Come at once. Message ends."
"No reply," said Burton.
"Up your spout!" screeched the parakeet as it flew off.
Forty minutes later, having walked briskly through the thinning fog that was still clinging to central London, Burton was once again sitting opposite Lord Palmerston, who, while hurriedly scribbling notes in the margins of a document, spoke without looking up.
"What is it, Burton? I'm busy and I don't require progress reports. Just write up the case when it's done and send it to me."
"A man died."
"A cab driver named Montague Penniforth. He accompanied me to the East End and was there killed by a werewolf."
Palmerston looked up for the first time. "A werewolf? You saw it?"
"I saw four. Penniforth was torn apart. I had no way to take care of his body without placing myself in jeopardy. He was a good man and didn't deserve an East End funeral."
"The Thames, you mean?"
"Yes." Burton clenched his fists. "I was a damned fool. I shouldn't have got him involved."
The prime minister laid his pen to one side and rested his hands in front of him with fingers entwined. He spoke in a slow and level tone.
"The commission you have received from the king is a unique one. You must regard yourself as a commander in the field of battle and, on occasion, His Majesty's servants will be required to serve. It's highly likely, given the nature of your missions, that some of those servants will be killed or injured. They fall for the Empire."
"Penniforth was a cabbie, not a soldier!" objected Burton.
"He was the king's servant, as are we all."
"And are all who fall while in his service to be dumped unceremoniously into the river like discarded slops?"
Palmerston pulled a sheet of paper from his desk drawer and wrote upon it. He slid it across to Burton.
"Wherever possible in such circumstances, get a message to this address. My team will come and clean up the mess. The fallen will be treated with respect. Funerals will be arranged and paid for. Widows will be granted a state pension."
The king's agent looked at the names written above the address.
"Burke and Hare!" he exclaimed. "Code names?"
"Actually, no-coincidence! The resurrectionist Burke was hanged in '29 and his partner, Hare, died a blind beggar ten years ago. My two agents, Damien Burke and Gregory Hare, are cut from entirely different cloth. Good men, if a little gloomy in outlook."
"Montague Penniforth had a wife named Daisy and lived in Cheapside. That's all I know about him."
"I'll put Burke and Hare onto it. They'll soon find the woman and I'll see to it that she's provided for. I have a lot to do, Captain Burton. Are we finished?"
Burton stood. "Yes, sir."
"Then let us both get back to work."
Palmerston returned to his scribbling and Burton turned to leave. As he reached the door, the prime minister spoke again.
"You might consider taking an assistant."
Burton looked back but Lord Palmerston was bent over his document, writing furiously.
Propriety demands that young women do not visit the homes of bachelors without a chaperone but Isabel Arundell didn't give two hoots for propriety. She was well aware that Society was already looking down its ever-so-haughty nose at her because she'd accompanied her fiance to Bath and stayed in the same hotel as him, though, heaven forbid, not in the same room. Now she was willfully breaking another taboo by visiting him at his home independently-and not for the first time.
Her willful destruction of her own reputation bothered her not a bit, for she knew that when she and Richard were married they'd leave the country to live abroad. He would work as a government consul and she would gather around herself a new group of friends, preferably non-English, among whom she'd be considered an exotic bloom; a delicate rose among the darker and, she imagined, rather less sophisticated blossoms of Damascus or, perhaps, South America.
She had it all worked out, and, generally, what Isabel Arundell wanted, Isabel Arundell got.
When she arrived at 14 Montagu Place that afternoon, she was reluctantly allowed into the house by Mrs. Angell, who had the brazen effrontery, in Isabel's opinion, to ask whether the "young miss" was sure this visit was entirely wise. The kindly old dame then suggested that if Isabel was determined to go through with it, then perhaps she-Mrs. Angell-should remain at her side throughout, to satisfy social mores.
Isabel impatiently dismissed the well-meant offer and, without further ado, she marched up the stairs and entered the study.
Burton was slumped in his saddlebag armchair by the fire, wrapped in his jubbah, smoking one of his disreputable cheroots and staring into the room's thick blue haze of tobacco smoke. He'd been there since his return from Downing Street an hour ago and had barely moved a muscle. His mind was far away and he was completely unaware that Isabel had entered.
"For goodness' sake, Dick," she chided, "I've stepped out of one fog and into another! If you must be-"
She stopped, gasped, and raised her gloved hands to her mouth, for she'd noticed that a yellowing bruise curved around one of his eyes, a livid and much darker one marked his left temple, there were scratches and grazes all over his face, and he looked somewhat as if the Charge of the Light Brigade had galloped over him.
"What-what-what-?" she stuttered.
His eyes turned slowly toward her and she saw his pupils shrink into focus.
"Ah," he said, and stood. "Isabel, my apologies-I forgot you were coming."
"Your face, Dick!" she exclaimed, and she suddenly flung herself into his arms. "Your face! What on earth has happened!"
He kissed her forehead and stepped back, holding her at arm's length.
"Everything, Isabel. Everything has happened. My life seems to have changed in an instant! I have been commissioned by the king himselfl"
"The king? Commissioned? Dick, I don't understand. And why are you bruised and cut so?"
"Sit down. I'll endeavour to explain. But, Isabel, you must prepare yourself. Remember the Arabic proverb I taught you: In lam yakhun ma tureed, fa'ariid ma yakhoon. "
She translated: "`When what you want doesn't happen, learn to want what does."'
She sat and frowned and waited while he went to the bureau and poured her a tonic. He returned and handed her the glass but remained standing. His expression was unreadable.
"The Foreign Office was going to offer me a consulship in Fernando Po-" he began.
She interrupted, "Yes, I have sent many a letter to Lord Russell recommending you for just such a post. Though I requested Damascus."
"You did what?" he muttered in surprise. "You thought it acceptable to write to Lord Russell on my behalf without first consulting with me?"
"Don't be bullish, Dick. We've spoken about a consulship often. But, pray, tell me what happened to you!"
"In due course. And I should say there is a great difference between a conversation shared between us and a begging letter sent to a government minister."
"It was hardly that!" she cried.
"Be that as it may, you should neither speak nor write on my behalf unless expressly asked by me to do so."
"I was trying to help you!"
"And in doing so made it appear that I lacked the wherewithal to forward my own career. By myself perhaps I could have secured Damascus. As it is, your intervention earned me an invitation to Fernando Po. They offered me a governmental crumb when I wanted a governmental loaf. Do you know where Fernando Po is?"
"No," she whispered, a tear rolling down her cheek. This visit wasn't going at all as she had planned.
"It's a Spanish island off the west coast of Africa; an insignificant, diseaseridden fleapit, widely regarded as `the white man's graveyard.' A man who is made consul of Fernando Po is a man the Foreign Office wants out of the way. The fact that Lord Russell suggested it for me means only one thing: I have irritated him. Except, of course, I haven't. In fact, I've had no contact with him at all."
"It was me! It's my fault! Oh, I'm so sorry, Dick-I wanted only the best for you!"
"And achieved the worst," he noted, ruthlessly.
Isabel hid her face in her hands and wept.
"Isabel," said Burton softly, "when the king honoured me with a knighthood, I thought my future was secured-our future. Then came John's betrayal. Why he did it, I know not. He'd been a younger brother to me, but he was weak and allowed himself to be manipulated by a malignant force. I'd striven like no man to make a name for myself: in India, I had to overcome disappointments and the jealous opposition of officers; in Arabia, I risked execution by taking the pilgrimage to Mecca; in Berbera, I was nearly killed by natives; and in central Africa, I almost died from illness and exhaustion. It all became worthless when he turned against me and tarnished my reputation. The things he suggested! By God! I should have horsewhipped him! But sentiment caused me to stay my hand and in that pause, the harm was done. When he shot himself, it might have been my head he levelled the gun at for all the damage it did me; for now, on top of all the malicious lies he'd told, I am blamed for his attempted suicide. On Monday, when I learned what he'd done, the Richard Burton you met in Boulogne ten years ago-the Burton you fell in love with-that man ceased to exist."
"No, Richard! Don't say that!" she wailed.
"It's true. You would have married a broken man-but for one thing."
"What?" she whimpered.
"That evening, I was physically assaulted."
Isabel blinked rapidly. "You were attacked? By whom?"
"By a thing out of myth and folklore; by a seemingly supernatural being; by Spring Heeled Jack."
She stared at him wordlessly.
"It's true, Isabel. Then, on Tuesday morning, I was summoned by Palmerston and he offered me a post on behalf of the king. I have become a-well, there's no real name for it; Palmerston calls me the `king's agent,' though 'investigator' or `researcher' or even `detective' might do just as well. One of my first commissions is to discover more about the very creature that assaulted me."
Isabel Arundell suddenly rose to her feet and crossed the room to one of the windows. She looked out of it as she spoke.
"This is poppycock, Dick," she snapped, decisively. "Has your malaria returned?"
He moved back to the bureau, beside her, and poured himself a glass of port.
"Do you mean to suggest that I might be delusional?"
There was a deep sadness in his voice. She swung around at the sound of it.
"Spring Heeled Jack is a children's story!"
"And if I were also to tell you that I've seen werewolves in London?"
"Werewolves! Richard! Listen to what you are saying!"
"I know how it sounds, Isabel, but I also know what I saw. Furthermore, a man died and it was my fault. It taught me a painful lesson: that this post I now hold brings with it immense danger, not just for me, but for those close to me, too."
"I can't-I can't-" she stammered. "Dear God! You mean to give me up?" She clutched at her chest as if her heart were failing.
"You know what manner of man am I," he replied. "Discovery is my mania. Africa is closed to me now and, anyway, I have little desire for the ill health that expeditions bring with them. The last almost killed me, and I would rather die on my feet than on my back. Besides, geographical exploration is but one form of discovery; there are others, and the king has given me the opportunity to use my mania in a fashion I had hitherto never imagined. I can-"
"Stop!" commanded Isabel. Her chin went up and her eyes flashed dangerously. "And what of me, Richard? Answer me that! What of me?"
Ignoring the great ache that suddenly gripped his heart, Sir Richard Francis Burton answered.
Despite her flaws, Burton loved Isabel, and despite his, she returned that love. She was meant to be his wife, that he could not dispute, yet he had defied Destiny and willfully forced his life down a different path.
He was left empty and emotionless; yet he suddenly acquired a heightened self-awareness, too, and experienced an intensification of the feverish sensation that his personality was split.
As the afternoon gave way to early evening, he fell once again into a deep contemplation-almost a self-induced trance-under the spell of which he explored the presence of the invisible doppelganger that seemed to occupy the same armchair as himself. Oddly, he found that he now associated this second Richard Burton not with the delirium of malaria but with Spring Heeled Jack.
He and his double, he intuitively recognised, existed at a point of divergence. To one of them, a path was open that led to Fernando Po, Brazil, Dam ascus, and "wherever the fuck else they send you. " For the other, the path was that of the king's agent, its destination shrouded.
The stilt-walker, Burton was certain, had somehow foreseen this choice. Jack, whatever he was, was not a spy, as he and Palmerston had initially suspected. Oh no, nothing so pedestrian as that! It wasn't just what the strangely costumed man had said but also the way he'd said it that forced upon Burton the conception that Jack possessed an uncanny knowledge of hisBurton's-future, knowledge that could never be gained from spying, no matter how efficient.
In India, he'd seen much that defied rational thought. Human beings, he was convinced, possessed a "force of will" that could extend their senses beyond the limits of sight, hearing, taste, or touch. Could it, he wondered, even transcend the restrictions of time? Was Spring Heeled Jack a true clairvoyant? If he was, then he obviously spent far too much time dwelling upon the future, for his grasp of the present seemed tenuous at best; he had expressed astonishment when Burton revealed that the Nile debate-and Speke's accident-had already occurred.
"I'm a historian!" he'd claimed. "I know what happened. It was 1864 not 1861."
Happened. Past tense, though he spoke of 1864, which was three years in the future.
There was an obvious-though hard to accept-explanation for the discrepancies in Jack's perception of time: he simply wasn't of this world. The creature had, after all, twice vanished before Burton's very eyes and, back in 1840, had done the same in full view of Detective Inspector Trounce. Plainly, this was a feat no mere mortal could achieve.
What's more, everything could be explained Jack's inconsistent character and appearance, his confusion about time, his seeming to be in two places at once, his apparent agelessness-if it were accepted that he was a supernatural being whose habitat lay beyond the realms of normal time and space. Perhaps Burton's first impression had been correct: could he be an uncorked djinni? A demon? A malevolent spirit? Moko, the Congo's god of divination?
The king's agent emerged from his contemplation having come to two conclusions. The first was that, for the time being, the bizarre apparition should be treated as one being rather than as two or more. The second was that Time was a key element in understanding Spring Heeled Jack.
He stood and rubbed a crick out of his neck. As always, focusing his mind on one thing had helped him to forget another, and, though his meeting with Isabel had been painful, he wasn't immobilised by depression, as he'd sometimes been in the past. In fact, he was feeling surprisingly positive.
It was eight o'clock.
Burton crossed to the window and looked down at Montagu Place. The fog had reduced to a watery mist, liberally punctuated with coronas of light from gas lamps and windows. The usual hustle and bustle had returned to the streets of London: the rattling velocipedes, gasping steam-horses, oldfashioned horse-drawn vehicles, pantechnicons, and, above all, the seething mass of humanity.
Usually, when he looked upon such a scene, Burton, ever the outsider, felt a fierce longing for the wide-open spaces of Arabia. This evening, though, there was an unfamiliar cosiness about London, almost a familiarity. He'd never felt this before. England had always felt strange to him, stifling and repressive.
I am changing, he thought. I hardly know myself.
A flash of red caught his attention: Swinburne stepping out of a hansom. The poet's arrival was signalled by shrill screams and cries as he squabbled with the driver over the fare. Swinburne had the fixed idea that the fare from one place in London to any other was a shilling, and would argue hysterically with any cabbie who said otherwise-which they all did. On this occasion, as so often happened, the driver, embarrassed by the histrionics, gave up and accepted the coin.
Swinburne came bobbing across the street with that peculiar dancing gait of his. He jangled the front doorbell.
Everyone uses the bell, thought Burton, except policemen. They knock.
Moments later, Burton heard Mrs. Angell's voice and the piping tones of Algernon, footsteps on the stairs, and the staccato rap of a cane on his study door.
He turned from the window and called, "Come in, Algy!"
Swinburne bounced in and enthusiastically announced, "Glory to Man in the highest! For Man is the master of things."
"And what's prompted that declaration?" enquired Burton.
"I just saw one of the new rotorships! It was huge! How godlike we have become that we can send tons of metal gliding through the air! My hat! You've acquired new bruises! Was it Jack again? I saw in the evening edition that he pounced on a girl in the early hours."
"A rotorship? What did it look like? I haven't seen one yet."
Swinburne threw himself into an armchair, hooking a leg over one arm. He placed his top hat onto the end of his cane, held up the stick, and made the hat spin.
"A vast platform, Richard, flat and oval shaped, with a great many pylons extending horizontally from its edge, and, at their ends, vertical shafts at the tip of which great wings were spinning so fast that only a circular blur was visible. It was leaving an enormous trail of steam. Did he beat you up again?"
"On its way to India, perhaps," mused Burton.
"Yes, I should think so. But listen to this: it had propaganda painted on its keel. Enormous words!"
"Saying: `Citizen! The Society of Friends of the Air Force summons you to its ranks! Help to build more ships like this!"'
Burton raised an eyebrow. "The Technologists are certainly on the up as far as public opinion is concerned. It seems they intend to make the most of it!"
"What a sight it was," enthused Swinburne. "I expect it could circle the globe without landing once! So tell me about the pummelling."
"I'm surprised at your enthusiasm," commented Burton, ignoring the question. "I thought you Libertines were dead set against such machines. You know they'll be used to conquer the so-called uncivilised."
"Well, yes, of course," responded Swinburne, airily. "But one can't help but be impressed by such impossibilities as flying ships of metal! Not with dreams, but with blood and with iron shall a nation be moulded to last! Anyway, old chap, answer my confounded question! How come the new bruises?"
"Oh," said Burton. "Just a tumble or two. I was clobbered by a werewolf, then, a few hours later, Spring Heeled Jack dragged my rotorchair out of the sky and sent me crashing through some treetops."
Swinburne grinned. "Yes, but really, what happened?"
The young poet threw his topper at the explorer in exasperation. Burton caught it and tossed it back.
Swinburne sighed, and said, "If you don't want to explain, jolly good, but at least tell me what's on the menu for tonight. Alcoholic excesses? Or maybe something different for a change? I've been thinking it might be fun to try opium."
Blake slipped out of his jubbah and reached for his jacket, which he'd thrown carelessly over the back of a chair.
"You'll stay well away from that stuff, Algernon. Your self-destructive streak is dangerous enough as it is. Alcohol is going to kill you slowly, I have no doubt. Opium will do the job with far greater efficiency!" He buttoned up his jacket. "Why you want to do away with yourself, I cannot fathom," he continued.
"Pshaw!" objected Swinburne, jumping up and pressing his topper down over his wild carroty hair. "I have no intention of killing myself. I'm just bored, Richard. Terribly, terribly bored. The ennui of this pointless existence gnaws at my bones."
He began to dance crazily around the room.
"I'm a poet! I need stimulation! I need danger! I need to tread that thin line 'twixt life and death, else I have no experience worth writing about!"
Burton gazed at the capering little slope-shouldered man. "You are serious?"
"Of course! You yourself write poetry. You know that the form is but a container. What have I, a twenty-four year old, to pour into that container but the pathetic dribblings of an immature dilettante? Do you know what they wrote about me in the Spectator? They said: `He has some literary talent but it is decidedly not of a poetical kind. We do not believe any criticism will help to improve Mr. Swinburne.'
"I want to improve! I want to be a great poet or I am nothing, Richard! To do that I must truly live. And a man can only truly live when Death is his permanent companion. Did I ever tell you about the time I climbed Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight?"
Burton shook his head. Swinburne stopped his bizarre hopping and they crossed to the door, went out, and started down the stairs.
"It was Christmas, 1854," said his friend. "I was seventeen and my father had refused to buy me a commission as a cavalry officer. Denied a role in the war, how could I tell whether I possessed courage or not? It was all very well to dream of forlorn hopes and cavalry charges but for all I knew, when faced with the reality of war, I might be a coward! I had to test myself, Richard; so that Christmas I walked to the eastern headland of the island."
They exited the house and turned up their collars. It was getting colder.
"Where are we going?" asked Swinburne.
"Battersea? Why, what's there?"
"Is that an affliction?"
"It's a public house. This way. I want to find my local paperboy first."
"Why all the way to Battersea just for a drink?"
"I'll tell you when we get there! Continue your story."
"You know Culver Cliff? It's a great face of chalk cut through with bands of flint. Very sheer. So I decided to climb it as a test of my mettle. On the first attempt, I came to an impassable overhang and had to make my way down again to choose a different route. I started back up, setting my teeth and swearing to myself that I would not come down alive again-if I did return to the foot of that blessed cliff, it would be in a fragmentary condition! So I edged my way up and the wind blew into the crevasses and hollows and made a sound like an anthem from the Eton Chapel organ. Then, as I edged ever higher, a cloud of seagulls burst from a cave and wheeled around me and for a moment I feared they would peck my eyes out. But still I ascended, though every muscle complained. I had almost reached the top when the chalk beneath my footholds crumbled away and I was left dangling by my hands from a ledge which just gave my fingers room enough to cling and hold on while I swung my feet sideways until I found purchase. I was able to pull myself up and over the lip of the cliff and there I lay so exhausted that I began to lose consciousness. It was only the thought that I might roll back over the edge that roused me."
"And thus you proved your courage to your satisfaction?" asked Burton.
"Yes, but I learned more than that. I learned that I can only truly live when Death threatens, and I can only write great poems when I feel Life coursing through my veins. My enemy is ennui, Richard. It will kill me more surely and more foully than either alcohol or opium, of that I am certain."
Burton pondered this until, a few minutes later, they caught up with young Oscar in Portman Square.
"I say, Quips!"
"What ho, Captain! You'll be taking an evening edition?" The youngster smiled.
"No, lad-I need information that I won't find in the newspaper. It's worth a bob or two."
"A couple of years ago, Captain, I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I'm older, I know that it is! You have yourself a deal. What is it that you're after knowing?"
"I need to meet with the Beetle, the president of the League of Chimney Sweeps."
Algernon Swinburne looked up at Burton in astonishment.
"Oofl" exclaimed Oscar. "That's a tall order! He's a secretive sort!"
Burton's reply was lost as a diligence thundered past, pulled by four horses. He waited until it had disappeared into Wigmore Street then repeated, "But you can find him? Is it possible?"
"I'll knock on your door tomorrow morning, sir. One thing: if you want to talk with the Beetle, you'll have to take him some books. He's mad for reading, so he is."
"Anything at all, Captain, though he prefers poetry and factual to fiction."
"Very well. Thank you, Quips. Here's a shilling to be going on with."
Oscar touched his cap, winked, moved away, and yelled, "Evenin' paper! Confederate forces enter state of Kentucky! Read all about it!"
"What an extraordinary child!" exclaimed Swinburne.
"Yes, indeed. He's destined for great things, is young Oscar Wilde," answered Burton.
"But see here, my friend," shrilled the poet, "I'll be left in the dark no longer! Spring Heeled Jack, a werewolf, and the Beetle. What extraordinary affair have you got yourself involved in? It's time to tell all, Richard. I'll not move another step until you do."
Burton considered his friend for a moment, then said, "I'll tell you, but can I trust you to keep it under your hat?"
"In that case, once we're in a hansom and on our way to Battersea, I'll explain."
He swung around and strode out of the square, with Swinburne bouncing at his side.
"Wait!" demanded the poet. "We aren't catching a hansom now?"
"Not yet. There's a place I want to visit first."
"Why must you be so insufferably mysterious?"
They made their way through the early evening crowd of perambulators, hawkers, labourers, buskers, beggars, vagabonds, dollymops, and thieves until they reached Vere Street. There Burton stopped outside a narrow premises which stood hunched between a hardware shop and the Museum of Anatomy. Beside its bright yellow door, a tall blue-curtained window had stuck upon its inside a sheet of paper upon which was written in a swirling hand the legend:
The astonishing COUNTESS SABINA, seventh daughter, CHEIROMANTIST PROGNOSTICATOR, tells your past, present, and future, gives full names, tells exact thought or question on your mind without one word spoken; reunites the separated,: removes evil influences; truthful predictions and satisfaction guaranteed.
Consultations f 11 AM until 2 PM and f 6 PM to 9 PM
Please enter and wait until called.
"You're joking!" said Swinburne.
"Not at all."
Burton had heard about this place from Richard Monckton Milnes. He and the older man had long shared an interest in the occult and Monckton Milnes had once told Burton there was no better palmist in all London than this one.
Beyond the front door the adventurer and his companion found a short and none-too-clean passageway of naked floorboards and cracked plaster walls lit by an oil lamp that hung from the stained ceiling. They walked its length and pushed through a thick purple velvet curtain, entering a small rectangular room that smelled of stale sandalwood incense. Wooden chairs lined the undecorated walls. Only one was occupied. It was sat upon by a tall, skinny, and prematurely balding young man with watery eyes and bad teeth, which he bared at them in what passed for a smile.
"The wife's in there!" he said in a reedy voice, nodding toward a door beside the curtained entrance. "If you wait with me until she finishes, you can then go in."
Burton and Swinburne sat. The room's two gas lamps sent shadows snaking across their faces. Swinburne's hair took on the appearance of fire.
The man stared at Burton. "My goodness, you've been in the wars! Did you fall?"
"Yes he did. Down the stairs in a brothel," interposed Swinburne, crossing his legs.
"They were throwing him out. Said his tastes were too exotic."
"Er-erotic?" spluttered the man.
"No. Exotic. You know what I mean, I'm sure." He made the sound of a swishing cane.
"Why, y-yes, of-of course."
Burton grinned savagely, looking like the very devil himself. "You fool, Algy!" he whispered.
The man cleared his throat once, twice, three times, before managing: "Eroti-I mean exotic, hey? What? I say! And-er-well-tallyho!"
"Are you familiar with the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana?" asked Swinburne.
"The, um, the-the K-Kama-?"
"It offers guidance in the art of lovemaking. This gentleman has just begun translating it from the original Sanskrit."
"The-the-ar-ar-art of-?" The man swallowed with an audible gulp.
The door opened and a woman swept into the room. She was tall, enor mously fat, and wore the most voluminous dress Burton had ever seen. She reminded him of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's megalithic transatlantic liner, the SS Titan.
"Thank God!" exclaimed the thin man. "I mean, I say, you've finished, my little lamb!"
"Yes," she said, in a booming voice, her double chins wobbling. "We must go home at once, Reginald. There are things we must discuss!"
He stood, and Burton was sure he could see the man's knees knocking together.
She pushed aside the curtain and squeezed her bulk into the corridor. Her husband followed, casting a last glance at Swinburne, who winked and said in a stage whisper: "The Kama Sutra!"
He chuckled as the man dived after his wife.
Another woman stepped from the doorway. She was of indeterminate age-either elderly but very well preserved or young and terribly worn, Burton couldn't decide which. Her hair was chestnut brown, shot through with grey, and hung freely to the small of her back, defying the conservative styles of the day; her face was angular and might once have been beautiful; certainly, her large, dark, slightly slanted eyes still were. The lips, though, were thin and framed by deep lines. She wore a black dress with a creamcoloured shawl. Her hands were bare, the nails bitten and unpainted.
"You wish an insight into the future?" she asked, in a musical, slightly accented voice, looking from one man to the other.
Burton stood. "I do. My friend will wait."
She nodded and stepped aside so that he might pass through to the room beyond. It was small, sparsely furnished, and dominated by a tall blue curtain, the same one he'd seen from the outside. A dim lamp hung low over a round table. Shelves lined the walls and were packed with trinkets and baubles of an esoteric nature.
The Countess Sabina closed the door and moved to a chair. She and Burton sat, facing each other across the table.
She considered him.
In the ill-lit chamber, with the flickering light shining from directly above, Burton's eyes were shadowy sockets and the deep scar on his left cheek stood out vividly.
"Your face will be known for long," the countess blurted.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'm sorry. Sometimes I don't know why I say what I say. It is an aspect of my gift-of my powers. It is for you to decide the meaning. Give me your hand. The right."
He held out his hand, palm upward. She took hold of it and bent close, tracing its lines with a finger.
"Small hands," she muttered, almost inaudibly. "This-hmm-such restlessness. No roots. You have seen much. Truly seen." She looked up at him. "You are of the People, sir. I am certain of that."
"You mean the gypsy race? It's true that I bear the name Burton."
"Ah! One of the great families. Your other hand please, Mr. Burton."
He held out his left hand. She took it, without releasing the right, and examined it closely.
"What! So strange!" she whispered, almost as if addressing herself. "This cannot be. Separate roads to tread; separate destinations at which to settle; one of small glories that will become great long after he has passed; another of great victories won in secrecy and never revealed. This cannot be, for both paths are trodden! Both paths! How is this possible?"
Burton felt his flesh crawling.
The woman's hands gripped his own tightly. She started swaying back and forth slightly and a low moan escaped her.
He'd seen this sort of thing before, in India and Arabia, and watched fascinated as she slipped into a trance.
"I will speak, Captain," she muttered.
He started. How did she know his rank?
"I will speak. I will speak. I will speak of-of-of a time that is not a time. Of a time that could be. No! Wait. I do not understand. Of a time that should be? Should? Should? What is this I see? What?"
She fell silent and rocked backward, forward, backward, forward.
"For you, the wrong path is the right path!" she suddenly announced loudly. "Captain Burton: the wrong path is the right path! The way ahead offers choices that should never be offered and challenges that should never be faced. It is false, this path, yet you walk it and it is best that you do so. But what of the other? What of the other? What of that which was spoken but doesn't manifest? The truth is broken and the lie is lived! Kill him, Captain!" She suddenly threw her head back and screamed: "Kill him!"
The room fell silent and she slumped forward. He withdrew his hands. The door clicked behind him.
"I say, is everything all right?" came Swinburne's voice.
"Leave us a moment, Algy. I'll be out shortly."
The poet grunted and closed the door.
Burton moved around the table and, taking the countess by the shoul ders, pulled her upright. Her head fell back, revealing eyes that showed only the whites; the pupils had rolled up into the sockets.
The king's agent crooned a low chant in an ancient language and made a couple of strange passes across her face with his left hand. His words throbbed rhythmically and, gradually, she began to rock again, in time with the chant. Then he stopped and said: "Awake!"
Her pupils snapped down and into focus. She gasped and clutched at his forearm, holding it tightly.
"I cannot help you!" she mumbled, and a tear fell from her long eyelashes. "Your very existence is not as it should be and yet, at the same time, it is exactly as it should be! Listen to the echoes, Captain, the points of time's rhythm, for each is a crossroads. Time is like music. The same refrain emerges again and again, though different in form. What does this mean? What am I saying?"
"Countess," said Burton, "you have told me what I myself have half suspected. Something, somehow, is not as it should be. I know who holds the secret to this mystery and I mean to get it from him."
"The stilt-walker," she hissed.
"Yes. You see much!"
"Beware the stilt-walker. And the panther and the ape, too."
"What are they?"
"I can tell you no more. Please, leave me now. I must retire. I am exhausted."
Burton straightened. He pulled two guineas from his pocket and laid them on the table.
"Thank you, Countess Sabina."
"That is too much, Captain Burton."
"It is what your reading has been worth to me. There is no greater cheiromantist in all London, of that I am certain."
"Thank you, sir."
Burton left and, with Swinburne, departed the premises.
It sounded like you were strangling her," noted the poet.
"I can assure you that I wasn't," replied the king's agent. "Keep your eyes peeled for a hansom. Let's get to Battersea and the Tremors. I need a drink."
They picked up a cab a few minutes later and, as it chugged southward, skirted around Hyde Park, and headed down Sloane Street toward Chelsea Bridge, Burton told Swinburne about his new post, about Spring Heeled Jack, and about his theory that the stilt-walker was a supernatural beingpossibly Moko of Africa's Congo region. He also told the poet about the East End werewolves.
Swinburne spent the entire journey with his wide eyes fixed on his friend.
Finally, as they crossed the Thames and rattled past the prodigious and brightly lit power station, with its four massive copper rods towering against the night sky, the poet said quietly, "You have always been an inveterate storyteller, Richard; this, though, beats any of your Arabian Nights tales!"
"It's certainly as strange as anything recounted by Scheherazade," agreed Burton.
"So we're going to the Tremors to speak to its landlord?"
"Yes. Joseph Robinson, the man who employed Queen Victoria's assassin."
"I'll tell you what I like about your new job, shall I?" said Swinburne.
"It seems to involve a lot of public houses!"
"Too many. Listen, Algy-I want us both to cut back on the drinking. We've been going at it hammer and tongs these weeks past, letting our frustrations get the better of us. It's time we took ourselves in hand."
"That's easy for you to say, old thing," responded Swinburne. "You have this new job to keep you occupied. Me, though-all I have is my writing, and it's not been well received!"
The hansom steamed past Battersea Fields and stopped on Dock Leaf Lane, where its two passengers disembarked. They paid the driver, crossed the road, and entered the Tremors, a small half-timbered pub with smokeblackened oak beams pitted with the fissures and cracks of age, tilting floors, and crazily askew walls.
There were two rooms, both cosily lit and warmed by log fires, and both containing a few tables and a smattering of customers. Burton and Swinburne passed through them and sat on stools at the counter. An ancient, bald, stooped, grey-bearded man with a merry gnomelike face rounded the corner of the bar, wiping his hands on a cloth. A high collar encased his thick neck and he wore an unfashionably long jacket.
"Evening, gents," he said, in a creaky but jovial voice. "Deerstalker? Finest ale south of the river!"
Burton nodded, and asked, "Are you Joseph Robinson?"
"Aye, sir, that's me," responded the landlord. He held a tankard to a barrel and twisted the tap. "Has someone been talking, then?"
"I was at the Hog in the Pound yesterday. The manager mentioned you."
"Oh ho! That old boozer! My my, what times I had there, I can tell you!" He placed the frothing tankard in front of Burton and looked at Swinburne. "Same for you, lad?"
The poet nodded.
"I was told to ask you about the name of this place," said Burton. "The Tremors. Apparently there's a story behind it?"
Start with a straightforward question, he thought; get him talking first then move on to the subject of Edward Oxford.
"Oh aye, yes, sir, that there is!" exclaimed Robinson. "Let me serve them what's waiting then I'll come tell you all about it."
He placed Swinburne's beer in front of the poet, glanced curiously at the little red-headed man, and left them, walking to the other end of the bar where a corpulent customer stood rattling coins in his hand.
"Will you be embarking on any more expeditions, Richard, or has this new role taken over?" asked Swinburne.
"It's very much taken over, Algy. It feels right, somehow. It's given me a purpose. Although I must admit, I'm none too keen on the confinements and hustle and bustle of London."
"Perhaps if it offers you action enough, you'll feel less like a caged tiger. What's Isabel's opinion?"
The answer came in a flat, cold tone: "There is no longer an Isabel."
The little poet lowered his glass, leaving white froth on his upper lip, and looked at his friend in astonishment.
"No Isabel? You mean you've parted ways?"
"This role I've taken on is not compatible with marriage."
"Good Lord! I would never have believed it! How did she take it?"
"Not well. I don't want to discuss it, Algernon. It's a mite painful. A fresh wound, so to speak."
"I'm sorry, Richard. Truly, I am."
"You're a good chap, Algy. Here comes old Robinson-let's listen to his tale."
The landlord came lumbering back and treated them to a gap-toothed smile through his bushy beard.
"It was the power station, you see," he announced, leaning his elbows upon the counter. "When Isambard Kingdom Brunel proposed it back in '37, the local community wasn't too happy. Oh no no no, we weren't happy at all. Who'd want that blooming eyesore on their doorstep? And, on top of that, we was afraid. When they started drilling the four holes, no one knew what would happen. Right down into the crust of the Earth they was pushing them blooming great copper rods, so's they could-um-confound the German fleet-no-um-what is it?"
"Conduct the geothermal heat," put in Burton, helpfully.
"That's the one! I remember them saying they'd be able to light the whole blooming city with electricity! What a load of cobblers that turned out to be! The only thing they've ever managed to light is the blooming power station itselfl Anyways, back in the day, folks around here was mighty afraid that the crust of the Earth would split wide open and swallow up the whole area, so me, being the young firebrand I was back then, I went and organised the Battersea Brigade."
"A protest group?" asked Swinburne.
"Yes, laddie. I wasn't much older than you but I was doing all right for myself. I'd taken over my old pa's public house-the Hog in the Pound, where you were yesterday, sir-and, being placed slap bang in Oxford Street, it was doing fine business."
"But you lived in Battersea?" asked Burton.
"Aye. My folks, bless 'em, had lived here all their blooming lives. Old dad used to walk-walk, mind you!-to the Hog and back every day. Three miles there; three miles back! So when he got tired of that, he made me manager, and I did the blooming foot-slog instead!
"Anyways, like I was atelling you, I recruited a bunch of locals and formed the Brigade-and I don't mind admitting that it turned into a nice little earner for me!"
"How so?" asked Burton, pushing his empty tankard forward.
The old man started refilling it.
"It struck me that if we were to stand against those Technologist devils then we'd need a spot of 'Dutch courage,' so to speak. So every Saturday, I used to ship the Brigade up to the Hog in three or four broughams, and give 'em all a drink for free. Heh! Once they got that down their necks they soon wanted more; only, of course, that weren't for free. Ha ha! Those Battersea Brigade meetings always turned into right old knees-ups, I can tell you! I made a tidy profit, thank you very much, and even more a few years later when I had the Brigade in the taproom and those Libertine rapscallions in the parlour!"
"The Libertines?" asked Burton, innocently.
"Why yes, sir, the-" He took Swinburne's empty tankard and started to refill it.
"I'll have a large brandy, too, if you please," said the poet. "And have something for yourself on me."
"Much obliged, sir. Most decent of you. I'll take a whisky. The Libertines-why, the whole thing started at the Hog in the Pound, ain't that right, Ted?"
This last was addressed to an ancient fellow who'd just arrived at the bar. He stood beside Swinburne, and Burton marvelled at his weather-beaten skin and bald pate, huge beaklike nose, and long pointed chin. He looked like Punchinello, and, when he spoke, he sounded like him, too, his tone sharp, snappy, and aggressive, seemingly the voice of a much younger man.
"What's that, Bob? The Libertines? Bah! Bounders and cads! 'Specially that blackguard Beresford!"
"May I buy you a drink, Mr.-?" asked Burton.
"Toppletree. Ted Toppletree. Very good of you, sir. Very good indeed. Most generous. Deerstalker. Best ale south of the river. Never mind the dog, sir."
This last was directed at Swinburne, whose trouser leg was being pulled at by a small basset hound. The poet jerked his ankle away only to have the dog lunge forward and bite his shoe.
"I say!" he shrilled.
"He's only playing with you, sir. Do you want to buy 'im? 'E's the best tracker you'll ever find; can sniff out anything. Fidget's his name."
"No!" squealed Swinburne. "Confound the beast! Why won't he leave me alone?"
"He's taken a right shine to you! Here, Fidget! Sit! Sit!"
The old man pulled the hound away from the poet. It sat, gazing longingly at Swinburne's ankles.
"You sure you wouldn't like to buy 'im, sir?"
"I've never been surer of anything!" Swinburne took a long gulp of ale. "I do believe you may be right about this beer! Very tasty!" he enthused, keeping a suspicious eye directed toward the dog. His upper lip was now entirely concealed behind a frothy white moustache. "Perhaps little Fidget will calm down if we offer him a bowl?"
Joseph Robinson placed a pint before Toppletree who took a swig, then announced: "Scum!"
Burton and Swinburne looked confused.
"Edward Oxford, I mean," explained the old man. "It was him. That's why Beresford and his mob came to the Hog."
Swinburne swallowed his brandy in a single gulp and pushed the glass toward Robinson, glancing ruefully at Burton and shrugging.
The king's agent, who was sipping his drink with more restraint, said, "Edward Oxford? The assassin?"
"Of course!" barked Toppletree. "Bob 'ere employed the bugger!"
Robinson handed the old man his beer and poured more brandy into Swinburne's glass. "It's true," he said. "Oxford used to work for me at the Hog before he went potty and shot the queen dead, may she rest in peace and he rot in hell."
"My Aunt Bessie's sacred hat!" exclaimed Swinburne. "You knew him? You actually knew the man who killed Queen Victoria?"
"Knew him!" exploded Toppletree. "This silly arse paid him!"
"I didn't pay him to blooming well assassinate the queen!" objected Robinson.
"Might as well have done. 'Twas your money he used to buy the pistols."
Robinson bridled, sticking his chest out over his not inconsiderable paunch and raising his clenched fists. "Watch your mouth, Ted. The bastard earned his money fair and square. What he did with it weren't my responsibility."
Toppletree, or Punchinello, as Burton couldn't help but think of him, grinned and his eyes twinkled mischievously.
"Ruffled feathers!" he exclaimed. "Guilty conscience, Bob?"
"Shut your trap!"
Robinson suddenly relaxed. "You old git!" He chuckled.
"Stow it, old man!"
"So what was Oxford like?" interposed Swinburne, eyeing the basset hound, which gazed back with a forlorn expression.
Well done, Algy! thought Burton, pleased that his friend was steering the conversation back in the right direction. He remembered Monty doing the same, under very similar circumstances, not much less than twenty-four hours ago. Repetitive themes, just as Countess Sabina had suggested, as if time were music, presenting the same refrain.
Listen to the echoes, Captain; the points of time's rhythm, for each is a crossroads.
"Blooming heck, you can knock 'em back!" observed Robinson, noting that Swinburne's brandy glass and tankard were both empty again.
"Another round, if you please!" requested the little poet. "Include your good self."
"Ta very much. Edward Oxford? He was barmy. Talked to himself all the time. The customers treated him like the village idiot. Laughed at him. Teased him. Mighty popular with the Brigade, though, he was; always asking after their families, befriending their kids; and he was a blooming good barman, too. Fast on his feet with a good head for figures. Never once gave the wrong change. Kept the taps clean and the ale flowing. I ask you, gentshow was I to know he was a killer?"
Burton said solemnly, "You can never tell what's at the back of a man's mind."
"True!" snapped Punchinello. "If I'd known, I'd have killed the sod."
They all grunted in agreement.
Burton surreptitiously checked his pocket watch. It was twenty minutes past midnight.
"So the Libertines frequented the Hog in the Pound just because Oxford had worked there?" he asked.
"Exactly so," said Robinson, serving the fresh drinks. "And I can tell you, at first it was only the fact that they dressed like gentlemen that stopped me booting them out!"
"That and the money they spent," snorted Punchinello.
Swinburne looked at the oldster at his side. "So you were one of the Battersea Brigade?"
"I was. And I nearly came to blows with that Beresford bastard."
"You've read the evening paper? About the attack? This morning? The girl? Spring Heeled Jack?"
Sir Richard Francis Burton tensed and placed his tankard back on the bar in case they noticed his shaking hand.
"Yes," said Swinburne. "It was fairly vague. The girl hallucinated, surely. Spring Heeled Jack is just a bogeyman."
"Nope. That devil's real, right enough. Ain't that so, Bob?"
The old barman nodded. "Aye. Attacked a couple of our girls, he did."
"Your girls?" asked Burton.
"The Brigade's. Bartholomew Stevens's lass and Dave Alsop's."
Burton's eyebrows rose. Stevens! Alsop!
"The attacks happened around the time Dave moved up to a little place north of the city, on account of getting work as a blacksmith," explained Robinson. "But though he was well away from the power station, he still used to ride down to the Hog occasionally for a drink with the old mob."
"Nice chap, he was," muttered Punchinello.
"Aye, it's true. Then that devil had a go at his daughter right on the doorstep of his blooming house. That was in '38, just a few months after Jumping Jack had attacked Bart Stevens's girl."
"What happened there?" asked Burton.
"Mary, her name was; she was set upon not far from here but screamed loudly enough to attract help and the devil hopped it. Well, a few years passed, then we had the assassination and old Beresford, the Mad Marquess, started bringing his chaps to the Hog. After a while, a rumour went round that he was Spring Heeled Jack. Dave and Bart got wind of it and they, and Ted here, were all set to beat the living daylights out of him, ain't that right, Ted?"
"Yup. We was going to pulverise the bastard."
"But I stopped the blooming hotheads!" said Robinson. "I was all for giving Spring Heeled Jack a good hammering but I didn't want no trouble in my pub unless it was for good reason, so I told old Bart to bring along young Mary to have a look at Beresford, see if she recognised him."
"And she didn't?"
"Nope," confirmed Robinson. "She'd never seen him before. Said he was nothing like the devil who attacked her. Jack had a thin face; Beresford was a moonfaced git."
"So no duffing up of the Mad Marquess," said Punchinello, regretfully.
"What happened to the Battersea Brigade?" asked the king's agent.
"Hah!" snorted Punchinello. "Turned into a drinking club. Never did a single thing. No opposition to the power station!"
"By the midforties, most had drifted away," put in Robinson.
"To where?" asked Swinburne.
"Well now, let me see. Alsop, Fraser, Ed Chorley, Carl Goodkind, Sid Skinner, and Mark Waite have all kicked the bucket; Bart Stevens moved out to Essex; Old Shepherd took his family to South Africa; Fred Adams moved out of London, Chislehurst way-"
"Chislehurst?" asked Burton.
"Or thereabouts, yes. Edmund Cottle is one of my regulars, like Ted, here; Arnie Lovitt is still in the neighbourhood; his girl and her husband drink here every Friday night, though I doubt I'll see them for a while, the poor sods-their daughter, Lucy, went loopy a couple of weeks back; I hear they're putting her in Bedlam-and Eric Saydso is hanging on but probably won't be around for much longer-he's a consumptive. That's the lot; there was fourteen of us in all, plus the various wives and kids."
"So the Brigade disbanded," noted Burton, "and then you gave up the Hog in the Pound?"
"That's right. I got tired of the blooming place and all those Libertine idiots, so I sold up and bought this little boozer and-to answer your original question, sir-I named it the Tremors on account of the fact that people around here was so certain that the Technologists' power station would cause earthquakes and the like."
"You've certainly had a high old time of it!" observed Burton. "What with the Technologists, the Libertines, Edward Oxford, and Spring Heeled Jack!"
Punchinello blew out a breath and said, "He attracts crackpots!"
Robinson laughed. "You've been my customer for nigh on thirty years, Edward Toppletree, so you may well be right! Anyway, gents, I have customers to serve. Give me a shout when you're ready for a top-up."
He gave them a nod and shuffled away.
"Nice talking to you," said Punchinello. "I'm going to sit by the fire and smoke me pipe. You positive you don't want to buy Fidget, here? His nose might be the Eighth blinkin' Wonder of the World!"
"Positive!" replied Swinburne.
They bade him farewell and watched as he shuffled away with the dog at his heels.
"What do you think, Richard?" asked Swinburne quietly.
"I think," responded Burton, "that we just picked up some very useful information and I'd better speak to Detective Inspector Trounce first thing in the morning!"
BEETLE AND PANTHER
Wearing loose-fitting white cotton kurta pyjamas, a saffron-coloured turban upon his head, and with his already swarthy skin darkened with walnut oil, Sir Richard Francis Burton strode purposefully along the bank of the Limehouse Cut canal. He'd made his way there through the disreputable streets of Limehouse unmolested by the rogues who inhabited London's great melting pot. The people of this district kept themselves to themselves, only mingling when there was a shady deal to be made or a dirty deed to be done.
Without a disguise, Burton appeared barbarous enough to have probably avoided trouble. He was cautious though, and felt it best to take on the character of a foreigner. The guise of a Sikh was an obvious choice, for Sikhs possessed a reputation-undeserved, as it happened-for ferocity. This, together with his forked beard and terrible, magnetic eyes, gave him such a fearsome aspect that people quickly stepped out of his path as he swung along, and he'd arrived at the bank of the canal without having been even once approached.
Late last night, after he and Swinburne made their way home from Bat tersea, Burton had slept much more deeply than usual, not waking until nine in the morning. After bolting down a grilled kipper and a round of toast, he'd gone to Scotland Yard to present Detective Inspector Trounce with the list of Battersea Brigade members.
"By Jove!" the policeman had exclaimed. "I can't believe they missed this; though I suppose it's understandable under the circumstances. The Yard didn't have a detective branch until the early forties, and I guess the fact that the Alsop attack happened near Epping tripped them up. There was no reason to look for a connection between the girls' fathers. I'll look into this, Captain Burton. In fact, I'll go down to Battersea myself today."
An hour later, back at 14 Montagu Place, Burton found a message waiting for him from Oscar Wilde. Through the "boys' network," the youngster had arranged a meeting for him with the Beetle. The appointment was for three o'clock, and the venue was strange, to say the least.
Burton was almost there.
Along the sides of Limehouse Cut-a commercial waterway that linked the lower reaches of the River Lea with the Thames-some of the city's most active factories belched black smoke into the air and gave a meagre wage to the thousands of workers who toiled within. Many of these men, women, and children had yellow, red, green, or blue skin, permanently coloured by the industrial dyes they worked with; others were disfigured by scorch marks and blisters from hours spent next to furnaces or kilns; and all had callused hands, hard bony bodies, and the haunted look of starvation in their eyes.
Burton walked past the huge, towering premises until he came to one particular building that, unlike its neighbours, had been abandoned. Standing seven storeys high, and with nearly every window either missing, broken, or cracked, it silently loomed over the busy canal-a shell, its chimneys impotent, its entrances bricked up.
He circled it by passing through an arched passageway that gave access to Broomfield Street, crossing its barren frontage with the blocked loading bays and empty stables, then returning back along a second covered alley to the narrow docks at the side of the canal.
People saw and ignored him. That was the way of things in Limehouse.
Beside the dock, on the factory's wall, in a niche down which rusting gutter pipes ran, he found what he was looking for: iron rungs set into the brickwork.
He shifted the bag that was slung across his shoulders, moving it so that it hung against the small of his back, then began to climb, testing each foothold before putting his weight on it.
There had been a second message waiting for him at home that morning when he returned from Scotland Yard. It was from Isabel, and read: You will change your mind. We are destined for one another; I knew that the moment I saw you ten years ago. I will wait. For as long as it takes, I will wait.
He'd sat considering it for some time, absently running a forefinger along the scar on his cheek. Then he'd composed and sent a terse reply:
Do not wait. Live your life.
It was brutal, he knew, but as with an amputation, a fast and clean cut is the quickest to heal.
He continued upward until he eventually reached the top of the ladder, then heaved himself over the parapet and sat for a moment to catch his breath, looking across the flat roof at the two long skylights, the cracked panes of which had been made opaque by soot. In the centre of the roof, between the two rows of glass, eight chimneys soared high into the air. It was the third from the eastern side that interested him.
He gingerly picked his way across the debris-covered roof, avoiding the areas that sagged, until he reached the nearest skylight. He skirted around its edge then moved over to the chimney.
It had rungs affixed to it, running from the base all the way to the top. Once again, he climbed, marvelling at the view of London that unfurled beneath him. A cold breeze was blowing, making his loose attire flap, though he was kept warm by a thermal vest.
He stopped, hooked an arm around a rung, and rested. He was halfway up and could see, far away, through the dirty haze and angled columns of smoke that rose like a forest from the city, the magnificent dome of St. Paul's. A few specks flew between him and the cathedral; rotorchairs and swans, the divergent forms of air transport developed by those two powerful factions within the Technologist caste, the Engineers and the Eugenicists.
He sighed. It had come just too late for him, this new technology. If he'd had the advantage of the swans, as John Speke had during his second expedition, recent history would have been very different indeed.
He continued his ascent, giving silent thanks that he didn't suffer from a fear of heights.
Minutes later he reached the top and swung himself over to sit with one leg to either side of the chimney's lip. The breeze tugged at him but with a foot hooked through one of the rungs and his knees clamped tightly against the brickwork, he felt reasonably secure.
He noticed that another set of metal rungs descended into the darkness of the flue.
Burton pulled his shoulder bag around, opened it, took out a bound notebook, and started to read.
For ten minutes he sat there, outlined against broken clouds and patches of blue sky, perched a precarious three hundred and fifty feet above the ground, the book in his hand, his noble brow furrowed with concentration, his savage jaw clenched, his clothes fluttering wildly.
Eventually, there came a furtive rustle and scrape from within the chimney.
Burton listened but didn't react.
The hiss of falling soot.
The scuffing of a boot against metal.
Moments of silence.
Then a quiet, sibilant voice: "What are you reading?"
Without shifting his eyes from his notebook, Burton replied: "It's my own translation of the Behdristan, which is an imitation of the Gulistan of Sa'di, the celebrated Persian poet. It is written in prose and verse, and treats of ethics and education, though it abounds in moral anecdotes, aphorisms, and amusing stories, too."
"And the original author?" hissed the voice.
"Niir-ed-Di'n Abd-er-Rahman; the Light of Religion, Servant of the Merciful. He was born, it's believed, in 1414 in a small town called Ja'm, near Herat, the capital of Khurasin, and adopted Jami as his takhallus, or poetical name. He is considered the last of the great Persian writers."
"I want it," whispered the voice from the darkness.
"It is yours," responded the king's agent. "And I have other volumes here." He patted his shoulder bag.
"What are they?"
"My own works: Goa and the Blue Mountains, Scinde or the Unhappy Valley, and A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah."
"You are an author?"
"Among other things, yes."
"No, this is a disguise I adopted in order to travel unmolested."
"Limehouse is dangerous."
There was a pause, then the sepulchral tones came again: "What do you ask in return for the books?"
"I ask to be permitted to help."
"To help? To help with what?"
"Not long ago, I saw wolflike creatures snatch a boy from the street. I know he isn't the first to have been taken, and I know that all the missing boys are chimney sweeps."
A long silence followed.
Burton closed his notebook, placed it in his bag, then removed the bag from his shoulders and lowered it by the strap into the darkness.
A small mottled hand, so pale it was almost blue, reached out of the shadows within the flue and took the bag. A satisfied sigh echoed up from below.
Burton said, "The books are yours, whether you give me any information or not."
"Thank you," came the response. "It is true-the League of Chimney Sweeps is under attack and we do not know why."
"How many boys have been taken?"
Burton whistled. "As many as that!"
"They all returned but nine. Nine are still missing. Ten if you include the latest, Aubrey Baxter, the boy you saw abducted."
"They are the ones most recently taken?"
"No, not at all. Most come back; some don't."
"And what of those who returned? What did they have to say?"
"They remember nothing."
"Really? Nothing at all?"
"They don't even remember the wolves. There is one thing, though."
"What?" asked Burton.
"All the boys who were taken-when they reappeared, they each bore a mark upon the forehead, between the eyes, about an inch above the bridge of the nose."
"A small bruise surrounding a pinprick."
"Like that made by a syringe?"
"I have never seen the mark made by a syringe, but I imagine so, yes."
"Can you arrange for me to meet one of these boys?"
"Are you the police?"
Burton waited. He watched a swan flying past in the near distance, a box kite trailing behind it, a man sitting in the kite, gripping the long reins.
"Here," hissed the Beetle.
The king's agent looked down and saw the worm-coloured arm reaching up out of the darkness. A piece of paper was held in the small fingers. He bent, stretched down, and took it.
Upon the paper two addresses had been written.
"Most of the boys live in the Cauldron," murmured the hidden sweep, "but that is too dangerous a place for such as you."
Don't I know it! thought Burton.
"There are some lodging houses which I rent in safer areas, such as these two. If you wait until tomorrow, I will see to it that you are expected; just say you have been sent by the Beetle. The first is where you'll find Billy Tupper, one of the fellows who returned. The second is a boarding house where three of the boys who are still missing lodged."
"Jacob Spratt, Rajish Thakarta, and Benny Whymper. All these boys were taken whilst visiting fellow sweeps in the East End."
"Thank you. This is very useful. Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"On the other side of the paper I've listed all the boys who were taken and the dates of their abductions. I know nothing more."
"Then I'll take my leave of you, with thanks. If I learn anything about these kidnappings, I'll return."
"Drop three stones into the chimney. I'll respond. Bring more books."
"On what subject?"
"Philosophy, travel, art, poetry, anything."
"You fascinate me," said Burton. "Won't you come out of the shadows?"
There was no reply.
"Are you still there?"
Both his cases were at a temporary standstill, so Burton spent the rest of the day catching up with his correspondence and various writing projects. He was surprised to find, in the Empire, an article by Henry Morton Stanley that, in reviewing the status of the Nile debate, gave well-balanced consideration to both positions. Burton's theory that the great river flowed out of the as yet unexplored northern shore of Lake Tanganyika was presented as a possibility in need of further investigation. John Speke's proposal that the Nyanza was the source was deemed more probably correct but, again, further expeditions were required. As for the explorers themselves, Burton, Stanley claimed, had been a victim of severe misfortune when fever prevented him from circumnavigating Tanganyika, while Speke had lacked the skills and experience necessary for geographical surveys and had made serious mistakes. Stanley was also highly critical of Speke's "renaming" of Nyanza. There was no need, he wrote, for a "Lake Albert" in central Africa.
It was a surprising turnaround, thought Burton, for he'd considered Stanley an implacable enemy, one of the men who'd stoked the fires of Speke's misplaced resentment against him.
What was the damned Yankee up to?
The answer came a few minutes later when he opened a letter from Sir Roderick Murchison. It was many pages long and covered a range of topics, though was mainly concerned with the financial mess Burton had left behind upon his departure from Zanzibar two years ago. The explorer had denied full payment to most of the porters who'd accompanied him and Speke for seven hundred miles into unexplored territory then seven hundred miles back again. The porters had not, Burton asserted, remained true to their contract, having mutinied and deserted in droves, and therefore did not deserve full payment.
Unfortunately, the British Consul at Zanzibar, Christopher Rigby, was yet another of Burton's foes. They had known each other back in India, and Rigby had never forgiven the explorer for repeatedly beating him out of his usual first place position in language examinations. Rigby was now getting his revenge by using his official position to stir up trouble, causing the payment affair to drag on for two tedious years.
This, however, was old news. What really caught Burton's attention was a paragraph in which Sir Roderick revealed that Henry Morton Stanley had received approval from his editor to mount an expedition of his own to settle the Nile question once and for all. Murchison continued: I have thus made available to him the f zits of your labours, which I ani certain will be of invaluable assistance in this f •esh endeavour Please rest assured. my dear Burton, that your place in histo; y is secure, and it will ever be stated that the results of Stanley's expedition, whatever they may be, would not have been possible were it not for your outstanding achievements, which. as it were. have "blazed a trail" for all who follow
Again, Sir Richard Francis Burton was suddenly aware of that peculiar sense of being divided, for he knew that this news would once have infuriated him, yet now he felt nothing. Geographical exploration now belonged, he sensed, to another version of himself; to the doppelganger.
He spent the next few hours writing up his case notes, creating a copy of the Spring Heeled Jack reports that Detective Inspector Trounce had loaned him, and designing a filing system in which to keep records of his cases.
At ten o'clock that evening, Trounce called at the house.
"You've cracked it, old chap!" he announced, dropping into an armchair and accepting a proffered glass of whisky. "I've had a right old foot slog around the Battersea district today but every twinge of my bunions is worth it! Listen to this!"
Burton sat down and sipped his port while the policeman spoke.
"Of those Brigade members on your list, seven have daughters and the rest can be ignored for now. I shall deal with the seven one by one. The first is Martin Shepherd, still living, sixty-one years old, married to Louisa Buckle. They had two sons and a daughter, Jennifer. She was born in 1822. In 1838, aged sixteen, she was molested by what she described as `a hopping demon' while crossing Battersea Fields. She was shocked but unharmed and the family never reported the incident. In 1842, she married a man named Thomas Shoemaker and they had a daughter, Sarah, who, coincidentally, is now sixteen. The whole family emigrated to South Africa soon after the girl's birth. Do you mind if I smoke my pipe?"
"Not at all," replied Burton. "You think the `hopping demon' was Spring Heeled Jack?"
"It sounds like it, doesn't it? Shame I can't interview Jennifer Shoemaker. I don't think it's necessary, though, and you'll probably agree when you hear the rest of it. Let's move on to Brigade member number two: Mr. Bartholomew Stevens."
"Mary Stevens's father."
"Yes." Trounce started pushing tobacco into the bowl of a stained meerschaum.
"Bartholomew married Elisabeth Pringle in 1821 and the following year Mary was born. As you know, she was attacked by Jack in '37, when she was fifteen years old. Five years later she married a man named Albert Fairweather and the whole family moved to Essex where they now live. The Fairweathers have four children, three boys and a girl. The daughter, Connie, is now seventeen.
"Our third chap is Carl Goodkind, who passed away five years ago. He left a widow, Emily, who still lives. They had one child, a daughter, Deborah, who, in 1838, was committed to Bedlam, having suddenly gone insane for no clear reason-at least, none that I could get Mrs. Goodkind to talk about. Deborah died in the asylum twelve years ago."
"Spring Heeled Jack again?" pondered Burton.
"You've seen the files, Captain. You know there are recorded cases of his victims losing their minds, so yes, I rather suspect that Deborah Goodkind was another such. And we shouldn't be surprised that the assault was never spoken of-even to other members of the Brigade-for you know the shame and embarrassment that attach to mental aberrations."
The king's agent nodded thoughtfully.
"The fourth man is Edwin Fraser, born 1780, died earlier this year at the grand old age of eighty-one. He married May Wells and they had a daughter, Lizzie Fraser, in 1823. Apparently she was a happy and intelligent child until the age of fourteen when, after a mental breakdown, she became morose and reclusive. Nevertheless, she found a husband in Desmond Steephill and gave birth to a daughter, Marian, in 1847. She would have turned fourteen in a couple of months."
Trounce took a long draw on his pipe and blew a column of blue smoke into the air.
"Last month," he said, quietly, "Lizzie poisoned herself, her husband, and her daughter."
"According to the coroner's report, there were bruises on the young girl's arms, as if she'd been gripped tightly, and scratches on her chest. They were not made the same day as the poisoning."
Trounce looked directly at Burton, and through the tobacco smoke his blue eyes seemed to shine as if lit from within.
"I think," he said, "that Lizzie Fraser was the Lizzie that Spring Heeled Jack asked after when he caused the brougham to crash back in '37. Furthermore, I think he found and assaulted her, causing her subsequent mental breakdown. I also believe that, last month, he attacked her daughter, Marian, and that Lizzie, in an insane attempt to escape his attentions, poisoned herself and her family."
"Great heavens, man!" exclaimed Burton. "Are you suggesting that the fiend is specifically targeting the womenfolk of Battersea Brigade members?"
"Yes, Captain, I am. Listen to the rest, then tell me if I'm wrong! The fifth of our seven is fifty-nine-year-old Mr. Frederick Adams, who married Virginia Jones in 1821. You've met their daughter."
"Tilly Adams, born 1822, married Edward Tew in 1845, gave birth to Angela Tew in 1846."
"I'll be damned!"
"Exactly," agreed Trounce. "I did some poking about in Mrs. Tew's past. She was bedridden for reasons unknown for the greater part of 1839."
"So I was right about that strange look she gave me when we were leaving her cottage," mused Burton. "Sort of secretive and resentful."
"Yes. As you suggested, she was hiding something. I have no doubt that she knew her daughter's attacker," said Trounce, "because she herself had been one of his victims more than two decades ago. Can I trouble you for a refill?"
"Certainly," responded Burton, reaching for the bottle. He topped up the Yard man's glass.
"And number six?"
"Mr. David Alsop, now deceased. Married Jemma Bucklestone. Daughter: Jane Alsop. Attacked aged eighteen in 1838. Married Benton Pipkiss in 1843. Their daughter, Alicia Pipkiss, was born three years later. Like Connie Fairweather, she's in the age group that Spring Heeled Jack attacks but has not been assaulted."
"Yet," observed Burton.
"Yet," agreed Trounce. "Those are our two next possible targets. The seventh member of the Brigade we can count out. Mr. Arnold Lovitt married June Dibble and they had a daughter, Sarah. It wasn't reported at the time but Sarah admitted to me that she was sexually molested in 1839 and in describing her assailant, she gave a pretty good portrayal of our stilt-walker. A couple of years later, she married Donald Harkness and they had three children, including a girl, Lucy Harkness. Three weeks ago, Lucy fell into a coma from which she hasn't emerged. The family's doctor has labelled it an `hysterical fit caused by severe mental trauma.' A trauma which, I'll wager, was caused by you-know-who."
Burton grunted and said, "So in every case where a member of the Battersea Brigade had a daughter, that daughter was attacked by Spring Heeled Jack. And of the granddaughters, all have been attacked recently, it seems, accept Connie Fairweather and Alicia Pipkiss."
"Yes. Which begs the question: what the hell is he playing at?"
Burton stood and paced up and down. "You've posted constables at the girls' homes?"
"They are being watched every minute of the day," confirmed Trounce. "The Fairweather family won't be around for much longer, though-they're preparing to emigrate to Australia. That, at least, might put the girl out of harm's way."
"There seem to be two main elements to this mystery," Burton declared. "The man who assassinated Queen Victoria, and the female descendants of one particular group of regulars who drank at the pub where he worked. Perhaps we should count the late Marquess of Waterford as a third."
"There's another," said Trounce.
"There is? What?"
That night, he dreamed again of Isabel.
She was bent low over a blazing fire, and its orange light made her face diabolical.
In her hand, she held a bound notebook; one of his journals; a detailed chapter of his extraordinary life.
With her features contorted by a hellish fury, she threw the volume into the flames, and Burton felt a chunk of his existence melting away.
She picked up another volume, fed it to the fire, and hissed in satisfaction as another part of him was turned to ashes.
One by one, she burned his journals.
Sir Richard Francis Burton was consumed, reduced to an empty shell of deeds done, the man himself removed.
He cried out desperately: "Stop!"
Isabel raised her eyes, glared at him, and lifted a thick, heavy tome.
"No!" he shouted. "Please!" For this, he knew, was his magnum opus.
"Everything you are," she said, with an air of finality, "must be rewritten."
She dropped the book into the flames.
Burton jerked awake, a sheen of sweat upon his brow.
"The deuce take it!" he cursed, pushing back the blankets and wrapping himself in his jubbah. He stood, parted the curtains-it was still dark outside-then leaned over his water basin and splashed his face.
He left his bedroom and walked down the stairs to the study, opened the door, and entered.
The coal in the hearth was glowing softly. Above, on the mantelpiece, a candle glimmered.
It was six o'clock in the morning, too early for Mrs. Angell to have lit candles, besides which, she wouldn't have done it. She'd have stoked the fire, opened the curtains, and returned to the basement to await his awakening and request for coffee.
He closed the door behind him and stood listening. Then he calmly crossed to the fireplace and took a rapier down from a bracket on the chimney breast.
He shrugged off the jubbah, threw it on a chair, and faced the room, standing in his pyjamas, holding the sword point downward.
"Show yourself," he said, softly.
A figure stepped out from the shadows to the left, from between a bookcase and the curtained windows.
The man was an albino, his skin and shoulder-length hair startlingly white, his eyes pink, with vertical pupils-the eyes of a cat. Of average height and build, he was dressed entirely in black, and held a top hat in his left hand and a silver-topped cane in his right. His pointed fingernails were also black.
By far the most remarkable thing about him, though, was his face, the jaws of which seemed to protrude unnaturally, giving the impression of a carnivorous muzzle.
Undoubtedly, this was the man who'd abducted John Speke and mesmerised Sister Raghavendra.
"I've been waiting, Sir Richard." The voice was a seductive purr, oily and repellent.
"For how long?"
"An hour or so. Don't worry; I kept myself occupied. I've been reading your notes."
"Is privacy a notion you find difficult to comprehend?"
"What possible advantage would I gain from respecting your privacy?"
"Perhaps the reputation of a gentleman?" said Burton, cuttingly.
The albino made a noise that might have been a laugh, though it sounded like a growl.
Burton raised the point of his rapier. "Is Lieutenant Speke alive?" he asked.
"Why did you take him?"
"Things might go a lot better for you if you abandon such questions. You've been asking too many of late, though your investigation has amounted to little more than an extended crawl from one public house to another."
"People gather in public houses. They're a natural source of information. You've been watching me?"
"Of course. From the moment you broke my mesmeric hold over the nurse."
"I saw your eyes in hers."
"And I saw you through them."
"I've heard such things are possible, though I've never seen it done before, not even in India. And, incidentally, you can stop staring at me like that. I'm a mean mesmerist myself and I won't succumb to your magnetic influence."
The intruder shrugged and stepped into the middle of the room. His eyes burned redly in the candlelight. He placed his top hat onto a desk.
"You don't recognise me," he said. "I'm not surprised. I am somewhat altered."
"So tell me who you are and what you want before you get the hell out of my house," answered the king's agent.
In one lightning-swift movement, the albino drew a sword from his cane, touched its tip to Burton's rapier, laid the sheath on a desk, and said: "Laurence Oliphant, most definitely not at your service."
Burton stepped back in surprise and his shoulder blades bumped the mantelpiece.
"Good Lord! What have you done to yourself?" he exclaimed.
Oliphant, who'd stepped forward to keep his blade against Burton's, applied a slight pressure to it.
"The True Libertines may rail against Technology," he said, "but the Rakes view the work of the Eugenicists as an opportunity. What better way to transcend human limitations than by quite literally becoming something a little more than human?"
"You've been hanging around with the wrong people," observed Burton.
Oliphant ignored the gibe and tapped his sword against the rapier, once, twice, before purring: "And to answer your earlier question, what I want is for you to stop poking your nose into matters that don't concern you. I am quite serious, Sir Richard. I will force the issue if I must. Do you care to test me?"
Burton held his blade firmly and responded: "I'm counted one of the finest swordsmen in Europe, Oliphant."
There was a blur of motion, an instant which passed so quickly that it might never have happened.
Burton felt a sudden warmth on his cheek. He reached up and touched it. His fingers came away wet with blood.
"And I," breathed Oliphant, "am the fastest. Don't worry; for your vanity's sake, I have merely reopened that old scar of yours rather than adding a new."
"Most thoughtful," muttered Burton, icily. He stepped forward and thrust at the albino's shoulder. His rapier was nonchalantly parried and ripped from his hand by his opponent's whirling blade. It hit a desk, bounced, and landed point-first in one of the bookcases.
Oliphant, whose sword tip was now touching Burton just below the left eye, gave a momentary glance backward.
"My dear fellow!" he oozed. "How unfortunate. You seem to have impaled James Tuckey's Narrative of an Expedition to Explore the River Zaire." He lowered his weapon and stepped back. "Take down another blade."
Burton, who'd never before been disarmed in combat, reached up and slid his hand along the chimney breast until his fingers found a weapon. Without taking his eyes from the intruder, he lowered it, gripped the hilt, and raised the blade until it touched Oliphant's.
The albino smiled, revealing even, pointed teeth. "Are you sure you want to continue? There's no need. Agree to abandon your investigation, and I'll take my leave of you."
"I don't think so," countered Burton.
"Come now! Throw it over, Sir Richard! Why not settle down instead? Marry that girl of yours. Maybe apply for a governmental post and write your books."
Bismillah! thought Burton. He's practically quoting Spring Heeled. Jack!
"Yes, that's one option," he replied. "The other is that you tell me exactly what's going on. Shall we start with why you abducted John Speke, or should we go back a little further and talk about why you turned him against me after the Nile expedition? Or maybe we can discuss the werewolf creatures you had with you at the hospital?"
He took a chance: "Or would you prefer a little chat about Spring Heeled Jack?"
A muscle twitched at the corner of a pink eye and Burton knew he'd hit home. He wasn't working on two cases-he was working on one!
Oliphant's sword scraped down the rapier and made a lazy thrust at Burton's heart. The king's agent turned it aside and stepped to the left, flicking his point toward Oliphant's throat-a feint-he brought it down and stabbed at an area just below the albino's collarbone. His blade was met, turned, twisted, and almost torn from his hand again. This time, though, his riposte was fast and effective and Oliphant, not meeting resistance from the expected direction, found his point rising higher than intended. The end of Burton's rapier danced forward beneath it, pierced the sleeve of the albino's velvet frock coat, and penetrated his wrist. It was a move-the manchette- that the adventurer had developed himself in Boulogne while under the tutelage of the famed Monsieur Constantine.
Laurence Oliphant sprang back and stood clutching his wrist, his lips curled.
With feline eyes following his every move, Burton circled his opponent, walked past the bureau and windows, behind his primary desk, crossed in front of a bookcase, then stopped, blocking the door.
He used the back of his hand to wipe the blood from his cheek.
"En garde!" he snapped, and adopted the position.
Oliphant hissed poisonously and followed suit. Their weapons met.
In a flurry of motion, the duel commenced. The two blades clashed, scraped, lunged, parried, and whirled in attack and riposte, filling the room with the tink tink tink of metal against metal. Even with his wounded wrist, Burton's opponent possessed greater speed than any he'd faced before; but Oliphant had a fault: his eyes signalled every move, and the king's agent was thus able to defend against the blindingly fast onslaught. However, finding an opening in the albino's defence proved far more difficult, and, as the two men battled back and forth across the candlelit study, the competition quickly became, at least for Burton, one of endurance.
"Give it up!" gasped Oliphant.
"Where is Speke?" ground out Burton. "I demand an answer!"
"The only one you'll get," growled his foe, "is this!"
The albino's blade accelerated to such a speed that it became almost invisible. Burton's instincts took over; his many years of study and practice in the art of swordsmanship saved him over and over as he desperately blocked and turned aside the darting point. Again and again he was forced to step back, until he was brought up against a bookcase and found himself unable to manoeuvre. Worse, he was tiring, and he saw in the pink eyes that Oliphant recognised the fact.
He feinted, avoided the counterattack, and plunged his blade forward.
A red line appeared on Oliphant's cheek and blood sprayed out behind Burton's flashing blade.
"One for one!" he barked, and, seeing his opponent momentarily disconcerted, attempted another of his own moves, the une-deux, which against any normal opponent would have sent their weapon flying out of their grip while almost breaking their wrist.
Laurence Oliphant was not a normal opponent.
With a howl of fury he slipped his blade through Burton's attack and renewed his assault.
The deadly tip of his sword flew in from every direction and Burton, with the bookcase at his back and his arm muscles burning, found his defences breached. Scratches began to materialise on his forearms; slashes appeared as if by magic in the material of his pyjamas; a puncture wound marked his neck.
He was breathing heavily and starting to feel light-headed. His left hand, held outward and downward for balance, kept knocking against something, a distraction that grew increasingly irritating as his defence continued to falter and Oliphant's weapon found its target again and again.
At the exact instant he saw in his opponent's eyes that the killing thrust was coming, his hand closed over the obstruction and yanked it. A second rapier whipped upward and James Tuckey's Narrative of an Expedition to Explore the River Zaire flew from the end of it, hitting Oliphant square on the nose.
The albino stumbled backward.
As Burton's newly acquired blade came down, his other came up, and this time his une-deux succeeded. Oliphant's sword went spinning away to land near one of the windows. The king's agent immediately dropped both rapiers, sprang in close, and sent a terrific right cross cracking into his enemy's ear.
The intruder's head snapped sideways and he toppled to the floor, knocking over a table and crashing into a chair, which splintered into pieces under him.
Rolling to his knees, Oliphant ducked under a second punch and swiped upward, his fingernails clawing through Burton's pyjamas and lacerating the skin beneath.
Burton grabbed for his opponent's arm, intending to pull him into a Jambuvanthee Indian wrestling hold, but his bare foot landed on a sharp fragment of wood and twisted under him. He lost his balance and staggered.
The albino kicked out, his heels thumping into Burton's hip. The king's agent fell back against the bookcase with a loud bang and volumes tumbled down around him. He slid to the floor, snatched up a chair leg, and scrambled back to his feet just in time to see his opponent leaping away.
Laurence Oliphant grabbed his cane, scooped up his blade and sheathed it, and propelled himself through the glass of the window. The loud smash was immediately followed by the tinkle of glass as the shattered pane rained onto the pavement below.
Burton raced over and looked out. No normal human could have survived that drop, yet there was Oliphant, hatless and bloodied, sprinting toward the western end of Montagu Place. He ran past roadworks, which had appeared on the street the previous evening, and vanished around the corner.
Sir Richard Francis Burton, dripping blood, his pyjamas hanging in shreds, opened his bureau and poured himself a large brandy, which he swallowed in a single gulp.
He crossed to the fireplace and fell into his armchair, let loose a deep sigh, then immediately stood again, wondering how the hell Oliphant had got into the house.
A few minutes later, he found the answer: the tradesman's entrance below the front door was open and beside it, in the hallway, dressed in her nightgown, stood Mrs. Iris Angell.
Her eyes were wide, staring blankly at the wall.
"Come on, Mother Angell," said Burton gently, and guided her into her parlour. He sat her down and began crooning in that same ancient tongue he'd used to bring Countess Sabina out of her trance.
He knew he had to be thorough now. It wasn't merely a case of disengaging the woman from her hypnotic stupor; he had to probe the depths of her mind to remove any lingering suggestions planted by the archmesmerist, for it wouldn't do to have her spying for Oliphant, or, even worse, slipping poison into Burton's food.
"Hellfire!" he thought. "What have I got myself into?"
Vote OUT the HYPOCRITE!
Vote IN DISRAELI!
Aater that morning, after he'd arranged for a glazier to replace his broken window, Burton called at Algernon Swinburne's lodgings on Grafton Way, Fitzroy Square.
"By James!" exclaimed the poet, screeching with laughter. "You're more battered each time I see you! What happened this time? An escaped tiger?"
"More like a white panther," muttered Burton, noticing the dark circles under his friend's eyes. Swinburne had obviously continued drinking after their visit to the Tremors and was suffering the consequences.
The poet examined the explorer's face and hands, his eyes lingering on the cuts and puncture wounds.
"They must sting deliciously," he commented.
"That's not the word I'd choose," replied Burton, wryly. "It was Oliphant. When was the last time you saw him?"
"Laurence Oliphant! Hmm, maybe eighteen months ago?"
"Average build; he has a bald pate with a fringe of curly brown hair around the ears, a bushy beard, rather feline features, magnetic eyes."
"Pale. I can't remember his eye colour. Why?"
"Because the man I encountered this morning-who claimed to be him-was a pink-eyed albino, clean-shaven with a full head of hair. Get your coat and hat on, Algy-we have work to do."
"So it wasn't Oliphant, then. Where are we going?"
"I think it was. He said he'd had work done by the Eugenicists, and you know how much they can change a man. Look at Palmerston! You told me Oliphant owned a white panther. I suspect that he's now closer than ever to his pet!"
Swinburne tied his bootlaces, slipped into his coat, and pushed a bowler hat down over his hair.
They left the flat and hailed a cab.
While they steamed southeastward, Burton told his friend about the latest developments: of his meeting with the Beetle and of Detective Inspector Trounce's discoveries; then he explained: "We're going to Elephant and Castle to question one of the boys who returned after being abducted by the loups-garous. He remembers nothing, apparently-due, I believe, to a mesmeric spell cast by the albino. Maybe I can break through it, as I did with Sister Raghavendra. After that, we'll take a look at the rooms which were occupied by boys who're still missing."
"Ah-ha! You intend a spot of clue-hunting, like Edgar Allan Poe's detective, Auguste Dupin?"
"Yes, something like that."
While crossing Waterloo Bridge, their conveyance broke down and they had to hail a second vehicle. This-a horse-drawn "growler"-took them the rest of the way across the river, past the railway station, onward down London Road and New Kent Road, and into the tangled streets of Elephant and Castle.
They stopped and disembarked on the corner of William De Montmorency Close. Burton paid the fare and shut Swinburne up when the poet started to complain.
"Never mind whether it's a shilling or not," he said. "Look over there! Something's up!"
Swinburne followed his friend's gaze and saw, farther along the road, a crowd of people gathered around a redbrick terraced house.
"Is that our place?"
"I fear so."
They approached the throng and glimpsed police helmets among the hats, bonnets, and caps. Burton pushed through and tapped one of the uniformed men on the shoulder.
"What's the story, Constable?" he asked.
The man turned and gave him a doubtful look. Burton was dressed and spoke like a gentleman but had the appearance of a battered pugilist.
"And who might you be, sir?" he asked, haughtily.
"Sir Richard Burton. Here's my authorisation."
A voice in the crowd exclaimed: "Blimey! They've sent a `Sir.' Now we're gettin' somewhere! You'll collar the bugger what done away with the nipper, won't you, yet lordship? We want to see the devil crapped, we does!"
The crowd cheered.
"Crapped?" whispered Swinburne.
"Hanged," translated Burton.
"I'm not sure about this, sir," said the constable, hesitantly.
"Who's your superior?" demanded Burton. "Take it and show it to him."
The policeman looked again at the paper Burton had handed to him. He nodded. "Just a tick, sir." He left them and entered the house.
"Murdered!" said the man in the crowd. "And not even ten years old."
"A little angel, 'e was," came a woman's voice.
"Aye, wouldn't say boo to a goose," agreed another.
"Fancy killin' a nipper!"
"It ain't English!"
"It's one o' them bleedin' foreigners what done it, I'll lay money on it!"
The constable appeared in the doorway and indicated that Burton should enter the premises. The king's agent, with Swinburne in his wake, pushed through the onlookers and stepped into the house.
"Upstairs, sir," said the policeman, handing back the document.
They ascended. There were three bedrooms. A dead child lay in one.
A man stepped forward with outstretched hand. He was small and slightly built but with a wiry strength about him. His brown moustache was flamboyantly wide, waxed, and curled upward at the ends. His lacquered hair was parted in the middle. He possessed grey eyes, with a monocle clenched in the right.
"Thomas Manfred Honesty," he said. "Detective Inspector."
"A reassuring surname for a policeman," observed Swinburne.
Burton shook the man's hand. So this was Trounce's erstwhile tormentor!
"I'm Captain Burton, acting on behalf of His Majesty. This is Algernon Swinburne. He's assisting me."
Honesty looked askance at Swinburne, who fluttered his eyelashes.
"Ahem! Yes, well, the boy," the detective spluttered, waving his hand toward the prone figure. "William Tupper. Orphan. Age uncertain. Ten years? Chimney sweep. Damn shame. Pitiful really."
Burton stepped over to the corpse and crouched beside it. The boy was tiny, even for his age. His thin neck was covered in blood; its source, a small hole at the base of the chin.
"Stiletto," offered Honesty. "In. Up. Pierced the brain."
"No," countered Burton. "A swordstick, such as gentlemen carry. A stiletto blade typically has a triangular, round, square, or diamond cross section without sharpened edges, whereas the rapier style of blade, which is most often used in swordsticks, is either diamond shaped in cross section, with or without fluting, or a flattened hexagonal; in either case, with sharpened edges. Look closely at this wound, Inspector-you can see it was made by a hexagonal blade which cut as well as pierced as it entered."
Honesty dropped to his knees and leaned close to the boy, adjusting his monocle and peering at the grisly hole above the larynx, his nose just inches from the wound. He whistled.
"Agreed. Rapier. But swordstick? Why?"
"In this day and age, can a man walk down the street in possession of a sword without being accosted by the police? No. It had to be disguised."
"Point taken. Sorry. Pun unintended. And this?"
He indicated the boy's forehead. There was a small bruise between the eyes, with a pinprick in its centre.
"I don't know," answered Burton, "but it looks like the mark left by a syringe."
"Syringe? An injection?"
"Or an extraction."
The Yard man stood and scratched his chin. "Syringe first? Swordstick second?"
"No, Detective Inspector, the syringe mark is a few days old. Look at the yellowing of the bruise."
"Hmm. Unconnected then. Though odd. Very odd. And the motive?"
"I was on my way here to question the boy. I think he was killed to stop him talking. Right now, I'm afraid I can't tell you any more than that, but I'm working in harness with your colleague, Detective Inspector Trounce, and will report to him. The two of you can then confer over this dastardly affair."
Honesty sniffed. "Pouncer Trounce. Good man. Has imagination. Too much. You can't tell me more?"
"I have more facts to gather before I can piece together the full story and present a report."
"I want to be involved. Don't like this. Children murdered. It's wrong!"
"When the occasion arises, I'll be sure to let you get a shot at those responsible, Detective Inspector Honesty."
"Good. Better come downstairs. Another fact for you."
"The kitchen," said Honesty. "Mr. and Mrs. Payne. Householders. Let the room. How could the boy afford it?"
"The League of Chimney Sweeps paid his rent," explained Burton. "It's an admirable organisation."
He and Swinburne followed the Yard man down the stairs. The poet looked around eagerly, soaking in the atmosphere of the murder scene, the raw emotion of it.
They trooped through the hall and into the small, narrow kitchen, which smelled of boiled cabbage and animal fat.
"A moment, Constable Krishnamurthy," said Honesty to a policeman.
"Yes, sir," came the response, and the uniformed man stepped out of the room, revealing, behind him, the figures of Mr. and Mrs. Payne.
They were frozen in midmovement: the old woman standing, pouring tea, which had overflowed the cup and saucer, pooled across the kitchen table, and dribbled to the floor; the man in midstep, his right hand holding a sandwich raised to his mouth. They were both looking toward a door that opened onto a small backyard.
Burton examined them for a moment, staring into their motionless eyes.
"Transfixed by psychic magnetism," he said.
"I see," responded Detective Inspector Honesty. "Mental domination."
"Yes. I'll bring them out of it."
For the next few minutes, the Yard man looked on in bafflement as Burton chanted and waved his hands about in front of the immobilised couple. Slowly, blinking in confusion, they regained their wits and were led into the parlour, where they sank into chairs. They remembered a knock at their back door, a man with white skin, white hair, and pink eyes-and nothing else.
When Honesty revealed to them the fate of their young lodger, the woman became hysterical, the man spat expletives into the room, and Burton and Swinburne left.
They passed through the crowd outside, ignoring the questions shouted at them, and swiftly walked away.
"You should have foreseen this, Richard," advised the poet, his voice uncharacteristically grim. "Oliphant read your notes."
"I know. Confounded fool that I am!" cursed Burton. "I never considered that the bastard would come here first and do away with the poor little soul. How the hell could I have overlooked the possibility? I'll never forgive myself!"
"Don't be an idiot. You overlooked it because infanticide is unimaginable," offered Swinburne. "No one normal would consider such an option. But Richard, when I say you should have foreseen it, I don't mean to censure you because you didn't; I mean to suggest that this new role of yours requires a different way of thinking. You have to attune that phenomenal intellect of yours to deviant possibilities like this."
"You're right, Algy, but I must confess: I'm doubting myself. First Monty Penniforth, now Billy Tupper; how many more innocent lives are to be lost due to my negligence?"
Swinburne suddenly hopped up and down and screeched: "For crying out loud, Richard, you didn't gut the cabbie or stab the child! Others did-and you have to stop them before they commit further atrocities!"
"All right! All right! Come on, let's check the missing boys' rooms. Maybe we can get some idea of why they weren't returned like Tupper and the others."
The second address supplied to Burton by the Beetle was less than half a mile away, on Tainted Row, which, despite its name, was a fairly respectable street of once handsome Georgian houses, now mostly divided into flats and individual chambers. Their destination was a three-storey residence that stood on the corner. Its various rooms were rented out by the landlord, Ebenezer Smike, to the League of Chimney Sweeps.
Smike was a careworn-looking individual, with a sallow complexion and uneven eyes, gaunt cheeks, and a long asymmetrical jaw, all of which gave his face a peculiarly bent quality. The fact that he regarded his visitors from the corners of his eyes, with his face slightly turned away, accentuated this impression. He wore a long threadbare dressing gown of a bilious green hue, and beneath it a pale yellow shirt, black and white chequered trousers, and a pair of worn tartan slippers.
"The League is still paying rent on the rooms," he explained as he led them up the stairs, "though they stand empty. I ain't touched 'em. Here you are."
He opened a door, revealing a small chamber containing a bed, a table and chair, a wardrobe, and a water basin.
Burton stepped in and surveyed the room; looked at the clothes in the wardrobe-a shirt, a waistcoat, a pair of trousers, and a pair of soft shoesand at the comb, tin soldier, and bag of bull's-eyes on the table. A sootstained flannel hung over the edge of the basin. A well-thumbed penny dreadful-Robin Hood's Peril-lay on the bed.
"This was Benny Whymper's room," said Smike.
Two small boys had appeared and were standing behind the landlord, watching the proceedings.
Swinburne smiled at them and asked, "Are you lads sweeps, too?"
"Yes, Mister," said one.
The next room, Jacob Spratt's, was almost identical to the first. A pair of slippers poked out from beneath the bed; a mirror leaned against the wall over the washbasin; a tattered notepad containing childish drawings, mainly of locomotives, lay on the table.
Swinburne examined himself in the mirror and groaned.
"I've modelled for the Pre-Raphaelites," he muttered, "but I don't think they'd want to paint me today. I look awful!"
The final room, which had belonged to Rajish Thakarta, contained a great many toy soldiers which the boy had cleverly carved from pieces of wood. His penknife was on the table, alongside a tattered book embossed with Sanskrit lettering. Burton recognised it as the Bhagavad Gita.
The wardrobe contained rather more clothes than those in the other rooms, including a small sherwani, the long coatlike garment common to South Asia. The boy obviously clung to his roots, though an orphan and far from his homeland.
As they moved back into the hallway, Burton stopped and looked thoughtful. He glanced at Swinburne, then at the two little chimney sweeps who were sheltering shyly behind Ebenezer Smike, then went into each of the three rooms once again and looked at the footwear in each.
He came out and suddenly squatted on his haunches and smiled at the two boys. Swinburne grinned, amazed at the way his friend's habitually ferocious expression seemed to melt away.
"I have two shillings, lads," said Burton. "Would you like to earn them-a bob apiece?"
"Not half?" they both hollered enthusiastically. They pushed past their landlord to stand before him.
"What do we have to do, Mister?" asked one.
"What's your name, son?"
"Charlie, sir; this is Ned."
"Well, Charlie and Ned, all you have to do is answer a question."
"Were the three boys who occupied these rooms tall?"
"Oh yes, sir!" they chorused.
"Regular giants, they were!" cried the youngster named Ned.
Burton nodded. "So older, eh?"
"No, not a bit of it! Just big 'uns, is all, sir!"
"Good lads," encouraged Burton. "Now, I have another question. If you think carefully about it and answer it truthfully, I'll add a sixpence each."
"Crumbs!" breathed Charlie.
"First of all," said Burton, "do you know the other boys who've disappeared recently?"
"I'm aware that most of them have come back. It's the ones who haven't that I want to ask you about."
"That'll be Jacob, Raj, and Benny, and Paul Kelly, Ed Trip, Mickey Smith, Lofty Sanderson, Thicko Chris Williams, and Ben Prentiss," said Charlie, counting the names off on his fingers.
"And Aubrey Baxter," added Ned. "He was snatched the other night."
"And those boys," said Burton, "were they tall, too?"
"I say! They certainly were!" cried Charlie excitedly. "They're some o' the tallest sweeps in the League, ain't that right, Ned?"
"Excepting Aubrey, what's a nipper like us, yes; beanpoles, the lot of em!" responded Ned.
"Thank you, boys-here are your wages."
He placed the coins in their eager little hands and rose to his feet, turning to Ebenezer Smike as the children scampered away as if afraid he might change his mind and demand the money back.
"Thank you, Mr. Smike. We won't take up any more of your time."
"You've seen all you need?"
"Yes, I believe so. We'll leave you in peace."
Smike accompanied them to the front door and, as they stood on the step and shook his hand, asked, "The young 'uns, sir-will they be back?"
"That I can't answer, I'm afraid," replied Burton.
He and Swinburne took their leave and strolled toward New Kent Road, intending to pick up a cab there.
"Interesting," muttered Burton. "It's the tall boys who aren't returning. What does that mean, I wonder?"
"But I say!" cried Swinburne. "What the dickens put you on that particular track?"
"You did! When you were looking into the mirror in Jacob Spratt's room I realised that it was leaning against the wall at an angle exactly suited to someone of your height; considerably taller than little Ned and Charlie. I then checked the shoes and slippers in the rooms and saw that they were all of a comparatively large size."
"Auguste Dupin!" screeched the poet excitedly, jumping around the older man like a whirling dervish.
"Calm down, you silly ass!" The king's agent chuckled.
Swinburne, though he became uncharacteristically silent, did not calm down. As they walked along, his gait became increasingly eccentric, until he was practically skipping, and he wrung his hands together excitedly, twitching and jerking as if on the verge of a fit.
By the time they'd waved down a hansom and were chugging homeward, the poet could contain himself no longer, and exploded: "It's obvious, Richard! It's obvious!"
"That I have to masquerade as a chimney sweep!"
"What the devil do you mean?"
"You must see the Beetle again and arrange for me to join the League. I'll work in the Cauldron and will put myself in harm's way until I get abducted!"
"Don't be bloody ridiculous!" snapped Burton. "I have enough deaths on my conscience; I'll not add yours."
"You don't have any choice. If you don't help me, I'll do it despite you!"
Burton's eyes blazed. "Blast you, you little squirt! It's suicide!"
"No, Richard. It's the only way to find out where the werewolves come from and where the boys are being taken. Look at me: I'm the same height as Jacob and Rajish and Benny and the other missing lads! I'll wander the streets after dark until I get myself kidnapped, and, somehow, by hook or by crook, I'll get a message to you!"
"I forbid it, Algernon! I absolutely forbid it! For all you know, the boys have been killed. And how the hell will you send a message?"
"I'll carry a parakeet with me!"
"It won't work! You'll not find one that'll be content to sit in your pocket without swearing at the top of its voice. It'll attract attention and you'll end up with your throat cut, if not by the loups-garous then by an East Ender."
"I don't know how then, Richard, but I'll find a way. It's our only hope of solving this case!"
"Our only hope? What do you mean, our? Since when did you become my assistant?"
"Since just now-and I'll not be dissuaded; this plan will work and you know it!"
"I know no such thing."
Their argument raged on until they reached Swinburne's lodgings, by which point Burton had concluded that nothing he could do or say would convince the little poet of the madness of the scheme. He was even tempted to mesmerise his friend but Swinburne's personality was so eccentric that his behaviour under magnetic influence was impossible to predict and might prove just as dangerous as his crazy plan. So, reluctantly, he agreed to talk to the Beetle later in the day.
At the back of his mind, an idea was emerging, and he realised that a return visit to Battersea would also be required.
When he arrived home, Sir Richard Francis Burton found that the roadworks were now right outside his house. The two workmen were obviously toiling with far greater efficiency than the average labourer, digging a deep, narrow trench and filling it in behind them as they progressed.
"Fast blighters, ain't they, Cap'n?" came a voice.
It was Mr. Grub, the chestnut vendor.
"They are indeed, Mr. Grub," agreed Burton. "You're taking the day off."
"Not by choice. Some idiot lost control of his penny-farthing and knocked my Dutch oven over. Put a whacking great dent in it. I had to send it off to my brother-in-law, the metalsmith, to hammer it back into shape. A darned hazard, all these new contraptions, don't you think?"
"I do, Mr. Grub. I do. I wonder what they're up to?"
"The diggers? They're laying a pipe. Probably a new gas main."
Burton looked at the two workmen; funny-looking chaps, he thought. More like gravediggers than labourers.
He bade Mr. Grub farewell and entered his home.
Mrs. Angell confronted him in the hallway.
"Now then, sir," she said, with hands on hips and a tapping foot. "They finished the new window a half hour ago and I've made your room shipshape again-but I would very much like to know what all that nonsense was about. I've put up with your ungodly carousing on countless occasions but you've never caused such mayhem before. Who was that white-skinned scoundrel?"
"Make us a pot of tea, Mother Angell, and I'll join you in the dining room. I think it's time I told you about my new job!"
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Gould scarcely cry "'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!" go your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
"Oh! Ah!-Oh! Ha! Ha!-It burns!"
Again and again, the leather belt struck Algernon Swinburne's buttocks with terrific force, sending wave after wave of pleasure coursing through his diminutive body. He shrieked and howled and gibbered rapturously until, finally, Master Sweep Vincent Sneed grew tired, threw the belt aside, took his hand from the back of the poet's neck, stepped away from the wooden crate over which Swinburne was bent, and wiped his sweaty brow.
"Let that be a lesson to yer," he snarled. "I'll 'ave none o' yer backchat, yer little toerag. Stand up straight!"
Swinburne stood, rubbing his backside through his trousers. He was wearing a flat cap, a stained white collarless calico shirt, a threadbare waistcoat, fingerless woollen gloves, and trousers that were too short-they stopped some inches above his ankles. On his feet were ill-fitting boots with loose soles. His face, hands, and clothes were smeared with soot and his teeth had been made to look yellow and rotten.
"Sorry, Mr. Sneed," he whined.
"Shut yer cakehole. I don't want another peep outa yer. Pack the tools. We've got a job on an' it's gettin' late."
Swinburne left the crate-which the master sweep used as a table-and limped over to the workbench where the brushes and poles, which he'd been cleaning all morning, were laid out. He started packing them into a long canvas holdall.
Sneed plonked himself onto a stool and sat with legs akimbo, elbows on knees, and a bottle of moonshine in his right hand. He watched Swinburne and sneered. The League had supplied him with this new boy three days ago and the little git was too mouthy by half.
"I'll beat some respeck inter yer, that I will," he mumbled, "yer blinkin' whippersnapper."
In aspect, Sneed resembled a stoat. His thin black hair was long and greasy, combed backward over his narrow skull, his gleaming scalp shining through it. His low forehead slid down into a pockmarked and sly-looking face, the whole of which seemed to have been pulled forward by his gargantuan nose-so much so that his beady black eyes, rather than being to either side of it, seemed to be on the sides of the astonishing protuberance. That nose had earned him his nickname, which he despised with a passion. Woe betide anyone who uttered the words "the Conk" within range of his little cauliflower ears!
His small lipless mouth and receding chin were partially hidden by a ragged, nicotine-stained moustache and beard. Through the tangled hair, two big uneven front teeth could be glimpsed.
Over his short, thin but powerful frame, the Conk was wearing baggy canvas trousers held up by a pair of suspenders, a filthy shirt with a red cravat, and a bizarre blue surtout with epaulettes, which may well have been a relic from Admiral Nelson's day.
"29 Hanbury Street, Spitalfields," he grunted. "One flue, narrow. We'll take a goose, just in case."
Swinburne stifled a yawn. He'd experienced three days of exhausting work. His hands were cut and blistered. His pores were clogged with soot.
"Ain't you finished yet?"
"Yes," answered the poet. "All packed."
"So shove it in the wagon and 'itch up the 'orse. Do I 'ave to tell yer everything?"
Swinburne went out into the yard and did as directed. His buttocks were burning from the beating he'd taken. He would have whistled happily were he not so tired.
A little later, he and the Conk, wrapped in overcoats and with their caps pulled down tightly, were seated at the front of the wagon and heading northwestward across Whitchapel. As the vehicle rumbled over the cobbles, its bumps and jolts sent pain lancing up through the poet's sensitised backside.
"Heavenly!" he muttered gleefully.
"What's that?" grunted the Conk.
"Nothing, sir," Swinburne replied. "I was just thinking about the job."
"Think about steering this old nag. There'll be time to think about the bleedin' job when we get there."
It was half past four. Spots of rain began to fall. The weather, unpredictable as ever, was taking a turn for the worse but it could never rain hard enough to wash away the stench of the East End. After three days, Swinburne's nose was becoming attuned to it, blocking out the mephitic stink. There were always surprises, though; areas where the putrid gases threatened to overpower him and bring up what little he had in his stomach.
The sights, too, were sickening. The streets were crowded with the worst dregs of humanity, most of them shuffling, slumping, or sprawling aimlessly, their eyes desolate, their poverty having pushed them into an animalalmost vegetative-state. Others moved about, seeking a pocket to pick, a mug to rob, or a mark to swindle. There were beggars, prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, and drunkards in profusion; children, too, playing desultory games in puddles of filth; and, occasionally, the white bonnets of the Sisterhood of Noble Benevolence could be seen bobbing through the mob; the women travelling in threes, trying to do good-distributing gruel and roughly woven blankets-managing to move through this destitute hell without being harmed; how, no one knew, though some claimed they possessed a supernatural grace which protected them.
There were labourers, too: hawkers, costermongers, carpenters, and coopers, tanners, slaughterhouse workers, and builders. There were publicans, of course, and pawnbrokers, betting touts, and undertakers; but the majority of the employed were invisible, locked away in the workhouses and factories where they slaved backbreaking hour after backbreaking hour in return for a short sleep on a hard bed and a daily bowl of slop.
Through this milling throng, the wagon passed. Swinburne steered it along tight lanes bordered by rookeries whose gables leaned precariously inward, threatening to topple into each other, burying anyone on the cobbles beneath. Grimy water dripped onto him from strings of hanging garments.
The sweep and his apprentice stopped and picked up a goose from a poulterer's, pushing it into a sack that the Conk kept squeezed between his legs as they continued their journey.
"It's a struggler," he noted, approvingly.
Ten minutes or so later they reached the Truman Brewery and turned into Hanbury Street, drawing up outside number 29. The premises was a large building with many rooms and an ironmonger's shop at the front. A notice in the window announced: "Rooms to Let. Apply Within only if Respectable. Strictly No Foreigners."
"'Obble the 'orse and unload the 'quipment," ordered Sneed, jumping down to the pavement. With the sack in his hand, he went into the shop while Swinburne chained the horse's ankles together.
The poet dragged the heavy holdall from the back of the wagon and waited. A moment later Sneed emerged and gestured to a second door.
"This way," he grunted, pushing it open.
Swinburne followed his master down a passageway and through a second door which opened onto a backyard; a patchwork of stone, grass, and dirt. It was surrounded by a high wooden fence and contained a small shed and a privy. Three steps rose to a back door, which the Conk knocked on. It was opened by an elderly crinoline-clad woman, her hair in curlpapers, who gestured for them to enter.
They moved through a scullery and kitchen into a short hallway then passed through a door to the right and found themselves in a small parlour.
"All right, ma'am-you can leave us to it," said Sneed.
"Mind you don't chip me china," advised the old lady as she departed.
Swinburne looked around but couldn't see any china. The room smelled musty and damp.
"Jump to it!" snapped the Conk. "Lay out the sacking."
He sat on a shabby armchair and pulled the bottle of moonshine from his pocket, taking swigs, watching Swinburne work, and giving the sack between his knees an occasional slap.
Swinburne soon had the floor and furniture, what there was of it, covered.
The master sweep slipped the bottle back into his jacket, slid off the chair, and poked his head into the fireplace, looking up.
"Nope," he grunted. "You'll not get up there. Why the Beetle 'ad to send me a hulking great helephant like you I don't know."
Swinburne grinned. He'd been called many things in his time but "hulking great helephant" was a first.
The Conk twisted, shot out a hand, and slapped the poet's face. Swinburne gasped.
"You can wipe that smile off yet ugly mug!" snarled the Conk. "You've got too much hattitude, you 'ave."
They returned to the wagon outside and Swinburne untied the ropes that secured the ladder. Sneed slid it off-it was too heavy for Swinburne-and heaved it up until its top rested against the side of the roof, its topmost rung just below the eaves.
"Get up there and drop down the rope, an' be quick about it!"
"Yes, sir," said the poet, whose face was stinging pleasantly.
While the Conk returned to the room behind the shop, Swinburne wound a long length of rope around his little shoulders then scrambled up the ladder. He now faced his most dangerous task: he had to cross the sloping roof to the chimney pot, a sloping roof whose tiles were slick from the spitting rain.
Lifting himself off the top rung and over the eaves, he lay on his right hip and pressed the sides of his boots against the wet surface. With his palms flat against the tiles, he began to push himself up. Bit by bit, he advanced over the shingles toward the ridge.
It took nearly ten painstaking minutes but he made it without slipping and, with a sigh of relief, stood and braced himself against the chimney. He unravelled the rope and lowered it into the flue.
"About bleedin' time, you lazy bugger," came a hollow voice from below.
The rope jumped and jerked as the Conk tied its end around the goose's legs. Swinburne could hear the bird honking in distress.
"All right, up with 'er," came Sneed's command.
Swinburne started to haul the unfortunate-and very heavy-goose up the shaft. Its panicked flapping and cries echoed up the flue.
This was the method they used to loosen the caked soot from the inside of the chimney when the space was too narrow for Swinburne to climb up and do it himself. Though he felt sympathy for the traumatised bird, the poet preferred it this way, for climbing a flue was an intensely difficult and dangerous affair, as the bruises and grazes on his knees, elbows, shoulders, and hands testified.
All the way to the top he pulled the fowl, until its flapping wings came into view amid a cloud of soot; then he lowered the blackened bird down again; his shoulders afire with the effort; the rope slipping through his hands and ripping his blisters.
"Done!" echoed Sneed's voice. "Get down 'ere!"
Dropping the rope into the chimney, Swinburne sat, twisted himself around, lay flat, and gingerly made his way down over the tiles.
The spits and spots of rain gave way to a more serious shower and the increasing gloom made it difficult to locate the top of the ladder, which projected just a couple of inches over the eaves. Swinburne-tiny, excitable, and oversensitive-was not, however, a man who felt fear, and despite the precar iousness of his position, he remained calm as he carefully shifted himself over the slick shingles at the edge of the roof until the toe of his left boot bumped the ladder. He manoeuvred onto the topmost rung and climbed down until, with a sigh of relief, he felt his boots touch the pavement.
By now, his whole body was aching and he longed for a brandy. It had been three days since his last drink and he was finding sobriety thoroughly disagreeable.
He returned to the Conk, who snarled, "Too slow, boy! This ain't a bleedin' 'oliday!"
"Sorry, sir-the roof was wet."
"I'll 'ave none o' yet excuses! Finish the job!"
The sweep sat back and took a swig of moonshine while Swinburne knelt on the sacking, which was now covered with the soot the goose had loosened from the flue, and started removing the rods from the long holdall. He affixed the large round, flat, and stiff-bristled brush to the end of one and pushed it up the chimney. Soot showered down and billowed around him. Screwing a second rod into the end of the first, he pushed again, with the same result. This routine continued until he stopped feeling any resistance from the brush, which meant that it was now poking out of the top of the chimney. He then reversed the process, unscrewing the rods one by one and pulling them down until the brush reappeared.
Sneed, who was by now quite drunk, mumbled: "Job done. Pack up."
Of course I will, thought Swinburne. You must be exhausted with all you've done!
He placed the rods and brush back into the holdall then rolled up each piece of sacking, carefully catching all the soot in the material. Nevertheless, once done, there remained a layer of black powder over every surface in the room, and this he had to clean up with a dustpan and brush and a damp rag.
As he was finishing, a broomcat poked its head around the door, surveyed the room, and licked its lips.
"Just in time. Grub up!" exclaimed Swinburne as the feline sidled in and started to walk up and down the length of the room. Its long, statically charged hair would attract the last remnants of soot, then, once every inch of floor had been covered, the broomcat would lick itself clean and digest the particles.
It was past seven o'clock by the time they steered the wagon out of Hanbury Street. Coins jingled in Sneed's pocket; in short measure they'd be exchanged for ale, though he'd have to keep a few back in order to pay the League of Chimney Sweeps, thus avoiding a visit from the organisation's infamous "punishers."
Had Swinburne been a real member of the League, he'd have received payment from them at the end of each week; a fixed amount, no matter how many jobs he had or hadn't done. It was a good system for the young boys, who were assured of a regular income while being protected from the worst brutalities inflicted by the master sweeps, who'd themselves been League members until they turned fourteen years of age.
Once ejected and no longer under the auspices of the Beetle, the exLeague members soon fell prey to the degradations of the East End, for scarcely any of them could afford to live elsewhere. They had their own union-the Brotherhood of Master Sweeps-but without the iron hand of the Beetle to run it, the corrupting influence of poverty, crime, and alcohol quickly caused little boys like Charlie and Ned to degenerate into sadistic louts like Vincent Sneed. In the Cauldron, that was the natural order, and even Charles Darwin would have been hard-pressed to find any signs of evolution there.
Algernon Swinburne drew the wagon to a halt outside the poulterer's and handed the reins over to the Conk. He jumped down and took a sack from the back; it contained the dead goose, its neck having been broken by Sneed after its horrible ordeal in the chimney.
"You can clean the 'quipment in the morning," announced Sneed in an uncharacteristic fit of generosity. He clicked his tongue and shook the reins and the horse moved off. Swinburne would have to make his own way back later. For now, he had another job to do.
He entered the poulterer's shop.
"Evening, Mr. Jambory," he said cheerfully to the tall, fat, treble-chinned proprietor.
"Hullo, sonny. I told you she was a flapper! You're as black as pitch!"
"She certainly was, sir. Very efficient! Very efficient indeed!"
"Jolly good show. Take her out back and get her plucked, then."
Swinburne nodded and carried the sack through to the small yard behind the shop. He sat on a small stool, pulled out the bird, and started yanking out the blackened feathers.
The rain dribbled down the back of his neck. It turned the feathers and soot into a grey mush around his feet.
Half his mind seemed to disengage, dozing, while the remaining half guided his fingers over the goose. He shivered with exhaustion and cold.
Slightly under an hour later, Swinburne presented the pink carcass to Mr. Jambory.
"Good lad!" exclaimed the fat man. "Are you hungry?"
"Starving!" admitted Swinburne.
"How about a glass of milk and some bread and dripping?"
To the poet, who'd eaten in London's best restaurants, this sounded like food of the gods.
"Wow! Yes please!" he gasped.
Some time later, feeling much recovered and with his stomach comfortably full, Swinburne was walking through the thinning crowd on Commercial Road when he was hailed from the other side. He looked across and saw a small ragamuffin with sandy blond hair, wearing a too-big cap, a too-big greatcoat, and too-big boots. It was Willy Cornish-a fellow member of the League of Chimney Sweeps.
"Hallo, Carrots!" cried Willy, crossing the road. "Been on a job?"
"Yes, up Whitechapel way. What are you up to?"
Willy lowered his voice and leaned close, his blue eyes very wide. "Have you heard about the Squirrel Hill Cemetery?"
"No, what about it?"
"Resurrectionists! They've been digging up the dead 'uns on Squirrel Hill! Wanna come and have a look? Maybe we can catch 'em at it!"
Swinburne hesitated. He was dog-tired. On the other hand, Squirrel Hill wasn't far away and he'd embarked on this adventure not just to help Richard Burton but also to experience life in its raw and bloody nakedness; seeking inspiration for his poetry; a quest for creative authenticity. Men digging up cadavers to sell to crooked medical practitioners-could life be any less embellished than that?
He nodded. "All right, Willy, let's go and spy on the grave robbers!"
"Really?" said Willy. He hadn't expected that answer. Most boys, if they were able, were rushing home now that it was dark, afraid of the werewolves. "You're not scared?"
"No. Are you?"
Willy stuck out his chest. "Course not!"
Swinburne's normally springy step was decidedly heavy as he trudged through the rain with his young companion. Willy, by contrast, jumped about excitedly and created extravagant plans for capturing the resurrectionists-plans which included booby-trapped pits, dropping nets, manacles, and blindfolds; and which inevitably climaxed with gibbets and bodies kicking at the end of swinging ropes.
"You're a bloodthirsty little beggar, Willy Cornish," observed the poet, and your plans are admirable if a mite impractical. Perhaps we should settle for reconnaissance for the time being."
"Re-conny-who?" responded the boy.
"Reconnaissance. It means we go and find out what the ghouls are up to and, if we see them, we run like blazes to get help!"
"'Spose so, Carrots," said Willy disappointedly. "I'd much rather capture the fellows myself, though!"
They turned off Commercial Road and followed an unlit alley down toward Hardinge Street. A girl, perhaps twelve years old, stepped out of a doorway and gave them a price. Even in the gloom, Swinburne could see Willy's face burning red. He shook his head at the girl and pushed his companion on.
They emerged onto Hardinge, which was quiet, though the perennial hubbub of the city could, of course, be heard in the background, and followed it down to the corner of Squirrel Hill, then began to climb the steep incline. There were no houses nearby, no people, and just one gas lamp, right at the top beside the cemetery gates.
"Keep quiet now, Carrots," advised Willy. "We don't want to scare the rogues away!"
Swinburne followed his little friend up to the corner of the tree-lined burial ground and squatted with him in the shadows next to a wall.
They listened but could hear nothing but the rain pattering on the pavement and rustling through the leaves of the trees.
"Give me a leg up," said Willy.
Swinburne sighed, thinking of the sacking mattress and thin blanket waiting for him back at Sneed's place. He bent, hooked his hands around Willy's knee, and lifted. The boy grabbed the top of the wall and pulled himself up, lay flat, and extended a hand down to the poet, who took it and scrambled after him. They dropped into the cemetery.
"I'm soaking wet," complained Swinburne.
Willy crept forward through the undergrowth and Swinburne followed.
A snapping noise came from somewhere ahead.
"What was that?" hissed Swinburne.
"Shhh!" repeated Willy. Then, in the faintest of whispers: "Resurrectionists!"
They came to a headstone, all tangled about with weeds and creepers, and moved from it to the next and the next, slowly approaching an area of darkness from which slight sounds of movement could be heard.
Swinburne forgot his tiredness and discomfort. He was now eager to witness whatever sepulchral events were occurring ahead. He began to shake and twitch with excitement.
Willy crawled on and poked his head over the top of a granite slab. He quickly ducked back, turned, and gestured for Swinburne to join him.
On his hands and knees, the poet quietly moved to his friend's side and peeked over the stone. Through the falling rain, he could see vague shapes moving.
He lowered his head and put his mouth next to Willy's ear to whisper, "We have to get closer!"
The boy nodded and pointed to a mausoleum that loomed out of the darkness to their right.
"We can go around that," he breathed.
Staying as low as possible, they sneaked across the uneven ground, through dripping bushes and patches of mud, past tilted crosses and stone angels whose shadowy eyes seemed to weep, until they reached the base of the bulky monument. Sheltered from view, but also from the glimmering light of the distant gas lamp, they fumbled their way through blackness. At the far corner, they stopped.
"We'll count them," whispered Swinburne, "then go back the way we've come. We'll hotfoot it to the tavern on the corner of Commercial Road and rouse some men. If we're lucky, we can get a mob to come back with us and catch the scoundrels in the act!"
He and Willy looked around the edge of the mausoleum.
There were seven figures, some bending, some crouching in the rain. They were all cloaked and hooded. Strange noises reached Swinburne's ears: snuffles and crunches, cracking and ripping.
One of the men stood, and it seemed to Swinburne that he was quite short in stature. He held a stick in his hand, which he raised to his hood.
A chill wave of revulsion suddenly numbed the poet.
It wasn't a stick. It was an arm, with a hand flapping at its end.
The figure pulled it away from its hood, tearing off a strip of polluted, wormy flesh.
Swinburne collapsed back into the shadow of the tomb, dragging the boy with him.
"Jesus Christ!" he moaned. "They aren't robbing the graves-they're eating the corpses!"
He could feel Willy Cornish trembling uncontrollably at his side.
"I want to go home," sobbed the youngster.
Swinburne hugged him close. "Go!" he whispered. "Get out of here as fast as you can, Willy. Go quietly, stay in the shadows, get over the wall, and run. Hurry to the tavern and tell what you've seen. Go now!"
The youngster wiped his nose on his wet sleeve, sniffed, and wriggled away.
Swinburne peered around the corner again. Two of the figures were drag ging a coffin out of the waterlogged earth, its rotten wood splitting, the sides falling away, the lid collapsing. The other five men, their hooded cloaks wrapped tightly around them, shambled closer, gathered around the coffin, and bent over its putrid contents. They pushed the pieces of lid aside and reached in. Swinburne heard bones breaking. He tasted bile in the back of his throat.
What happened next occurred so suddenly that Swinburne found himself acting without knowing what he was doing.
Something-maybe the snap of a twig or a careless movement-attracted the cannibalistic grave robbers. As one, their heads turned, and Swinburne knew straightaway that Willy Cornish had been spotted.
The poet rose to his feet and stepped away from the mausoleum.
"Hey!" he shouted.
Seven hoods swung in his direction and seven sets of seething red eyes fixed on him. One of the figures took two steps forward and the dim lamplight angled across its face, revealing a wrinkled snout and white canines.
For the first time in his life, Swinburne experienced fear. He turned and started to run but went pelting into a gravestone, stumbled, lost his balance, and fell. His legs kicked franticly as he tried to crawl into the shadows but when claws dug into his ankle he knew that the creatures were upon him. He was dragged back over the wet soil, his fingers digging into it but finding no purchase.
Hands gripped and lifted him, and a dread of being torn apart and eaten alive overpowered him, pushing him to the brink of unconsciousness.
The wolf-men snarled and gripped his limbs tightly, pushed their snouts into his clothing, and sniffed at it. They grunted and began to move, the ground rushing past Swinburne's eyes as they raced across it.
In the last seconds of awareness, before he fainted, Swinburne realised that he was being borne away.
DOG, CAT, AND MOUSE
The Universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
The morning after he and Algernon Swinburne had visited Elephant and Castle, Sir Richard Francis Burton once again donned his Sikh disguise, made his way to the abandoned factory beside the Limehouse Cut, and climbed the chimney. He dropped three pebbles down the flue, one after the other, and, moments later, had his second interview with the Beetle. He and the president of the League of Chimney Sweeps, who once again remained in the darkness, arranged for Swinburne's apprenticeship with Vincent Sneed, then Burton handed over a gift of books and departed.
He made his way to the poet's lodgings and outlined the plan. Swinburne was beside himself with delight and immediately started making his preparations.
Burton then had a meeting with Detective Inspector Trounce at Scotland Yard. He told him about the latest developments, including his suspicion that Oliphant knew something about Spring Heeled Jack, and learned in turn that the two girls, Connie Fairweather and Alicia Pipkiss, had so far been going about their business as normal; there had been no sign of Spring Heeled Jack.
The king's agent arrived back at 14 Montagu Place at two thirty. As he paid the cab driver, he noticed that the roadworks had stopped outside his home, the trench had been filled in, and new cobbles covered it. A thick pipe that hadn't been there before was running up the side of the house. It disappeared into the brickwork just below one of his study windows.
"What's the new pipe?" he asked Mrs. Angell, as he wiped his feet on the doormat.
"Something to do with the gas supply," she answered. "I must say, they worked tremendously fast."
He mounted the stairs and went up to his study, passed through it to his dressing room, and removed the Sikh costume and makeup. Half an hour later, he was dressed comfortably, seated at a desk, and picking at his lunch while reading the latest edition of the Empire.
There was a knock at the door and Mrs. Angell entered at his bidding.
"The two workmen wish to see you, sir."
"The ones who put the new gas main in."
"What do they want?"
"I don't know but they are very insistent."
"Very well-send them up."
She withdrew and moments later two men entered. They were both dressed identically in long black surtouts, with black waistcoats underneath. Their white shirts had high cheek-scraping "Gladstone" collars, the starched points of which threatened to pierce their eyeballs at every turn of the head. Pale yellow cravats encased their necks. Their high-waisted breeches ended just below their knees, giving way to pale yellow tights. They wore buckled shoes.
All in all, their style was at least fifty years out of date.
"Good afternoon, Captain Burton," said the tall but slightly hunchbacked man on the left. Like his companion, he was holding a stovepipe hat. Unlike his companion, he was extremely bald, with just a short fringe of hair around his ears. As if to compensate for this, he sported the variety of extremely long side whiskers known as "Piccadilly weepers." His face hung in a naturally maudlin expression: the mouth curved downward, the jowly cheeks drooping, the eyes woebegone. He shifted the brim of his hat through his fingers nervously.
"My name is Damien Burke."
The second man bobbed his head. He was shorter and immensely broad, with massive shoulders and long, apelike arms. His head was crowned with an upstanding mop of pure white hair that descended before his small puffy ears in a short fringe, angling around his square jawline to a tuft beneath the heavy chin. His pale grey eyes were deeply embedded in gristly sockets; he had a splayed, many-times-broken nose and an extraordinarily wide mouth filled with large flat teeth. In his left hand, he held a big canvas bag.
"And I'm Gregory Hare," he said, in a rumbling voice. "Where do you want it?"
Burton, who'd risen from his desk, paced over to the men and held his hand out.
"Pleased to meet you," he said.
Burke looked down at the proffered hand in surprise. He licked his lips then held out his own, as if unfamiliar with such niceties.
Hare, who had his hat in one hand and the bag in the other, moved indecisively, put on his hat, quickly shook Burton's hand, then snatched the stovepipe back off his head.
"Where do I want what?" asked Burton.
"Ah, well, there now-that's a question," replied Burke in funereal tones. "What indeed? Perhaps you have a suggestion, Captain? Messenger pipe? Canister conveyor? Communications tube? For the life of us we've not yet come up with a suitable moniker."
"Are you referring to the contrivance on Lord Palmerston's desk?"
"Why, of course, sir. But unlike the prime minister, you seem to be replete with desks. Is there a preferred?"
Burton indicated the desk by the windows. "I use this one the most."
"Very good, sir. We'll have to take the floor up but it'll all be done in a jiffy and we'll leave it as we find it. Would you mind clearing the desk? We wouldn't want to disturb your work. Incidentally, sir, I read your First Footsteps in East Africa-most fascinating; most fascinating indeed!"
The hunchback turned to his colleague. "Come along, Mr. Hare, we don't want to inconvenience Captain Burton for longer than necessary."
"Of course not, Mr. Burke," replied the apelike Hare. "That wouldn't do at all!"
While Burton shifted books and documents, his two visitors unpacked tools from their bag and started to jemmy up the floorboards by the window.
An hour later the boards were back in place. The pipe, which entered the house below the study window, now ran under the floor until it reached Burton's desk. It then turned upward and passed through a hole in the boards and desk until it joined a steaming device identical to that which the king's agent had seen in front of Palmerston.
"The operation is simple, Captain," advised Burke. "This part here must be topped up with water every day. This dial here is how you direct your canisters. Dial one-one-one when you want to send to His Majesty, two-two-two when you want to send to the prime minister, and three-three-three when you need to contact us. You'll forgive me for saying so, I hope, sir, but you have a reputation for not being backward when it comes to being forward. I feel I should advise you that communicating with the king is a privilege that shouldn't be abused. In fact, I'd recommend only speaking when you're spoken to, if you get my drift."
"Understood," responded Burton. "What heats the device?"
"Don't worry about that, Captain; we take care of it at our end. The heat is conducted along a special wire in the lining of the pipe. Rather complicated. No need to go into details. Remember-dial three-three-three if you need us. You can also send a parakeet or runner-I believe you have the address?"
"Very good. One last thing, sir. Mr. Montague Penniforth's remains were recovered by the river police in the early hours of this morning. His widow has been notified, his funeral paid for, and her pension arranged. In the future, should you encounter such unfortunate occurrences, if you can manage to have the deceased either left alone or stored somewhere, we will act the moment you notify us to ensure that disposal is civilised and respectful. Right, then, we'll leave you to get on, Captain. We're sorry to have bothered you, aren't we, Mr. Hare?"
"We are, Mr. Burke," rumbled Hare. "Very sorry, Captain. Good-bye."
"Good-bye, Captain," echoed Burke.
"Good-bye," said Burton.
The door closed. He heard their footsteps on the stairs. The front door opened and closed.
He crossed to the window and looked down at Montagu Place. He couldn't see them.
So that was Burke and Hare! What an extraordinary duo!
Thirty minutes later, the newly installed contraption began to shake and hiss; it rattled and whistled and a canister thunked into it. Burton opened the door on the side and caught the canister as it plopped out. He cracked off the lid and withdrew a note from inside. It read:
Gifts in the garage. A.
A for Albert. A message from the king of England!
Intrigued, he went downstairs to Mrs. Angell's domain, where he unlocked and opened the back door, and ascended the exterior steps to the backyard. He crossed it and entered the garage. Inside he found two pennyfarthings and a rotorchair.
Later that afternoon, he used one of the velocipedes for the first time, perched high on the saddle, steaming back down to Battersea.
When he returned some hours later, he had a large basket propped on the handlebars.
Three days passed without progress.
There were no reported sightings of Spring Heeled Jack.
Algernon Swinburne was somewhere in the depths of the Cauldron.
Sir Richard Francis Burton fretted and worried. He tried to occupy himself with his books but couldn't concentrate; he researched Moko Jumbi but found little besides the superficial resemblance to connect the African god to the stilt-walker.
Early on the morning of the fourth day there came a knock at the front door. It was young Oscar Wilde, the paperboy.
"Top o' the morning to you, Captain," he said. "I'm of the opinion that no good deed goes unpunished, but there are some people who I'm prepared to risk all for. Therefore, please take these, and I'll be bidding you good day."
He held out his hand and released something into Burton's palm, then spun on his heel and walked away, turning once to wave and grin.
Burton was left holding three pebbles. A summons from the Beetle.
He acted immediately, bounding up the stairs, through his study, and into the dressing room, where he donned a roughly woven suit, chopped his beard down to stubble-though keeping his moustaches long and drooping to either side of his chin-ruffled his hair, dirtied his face, neck, and hands, and slipped into a pair of scuffed and cracked boots.
When he left the house, he was not alone.
Burton was tempted to use one of his new vehicles, but where he was going, modern technology was liable to be stolen on sight or vandalised, so he waved down the first cab he saw-a horse-drawn growler-and cried: "Get me to Limehouse Cut as quickly as possible! Hurry, man!"
"Have you the fare?" asked the driver, looking at him suspiciously.
Burton impatiently flashed a handful of coins at the man.
"I'll pay you double if I'm there within thirty minutes!" he cried, pushing his companion into the four-wheeler before clambering in himself.
"Easy money!" muttered the driver, cracking his whip over the two horses' heads.
The growler jerked into motion and went flying down the street. Burton was thrown about and banged his head as the vehicle careened around a corner, but he didn't care-speed was essential now!
The carriage skidded and swerved wildly on the wet cobbles but the driver steered it with an expert hand and delivered his passengers to St. Paul's Road, close to the factory, well within the allotted time.
"Good man!" exclaimed the king's agent, passing coins up to the cabbie. "Money well earned!"
The rain was beating down hard, rinsing the city's muck into the filthy artery that ran through its middle, washing Sir Richard Francis Burton's hopes away. It could ruin his and Swinburne's plan. It could mean the poet's death.
He hurried to the factory and, leaving his companion at the bottom of the ladder, climbed it to the roof, then continued on up to the lip of the chimney.
The rain lashed his face as he dropped the three pebbles into the flue.
Minutes later, the Beetle said, "You look different."
"What's the news?" snapped Burton.
"Your friend has been taken. He was dragged out of the Squirrel Hill graveyard in Wapping by seven cloaked men. It was witnessed by one of my sweeps, a boy named Willy Cornish. He didn't see the men's faces-they wore hoods-but he says they moved in an odd fashion."
"The loups-garous," said Burton.
"Yes, I believe so. You think you can follow their trail?"
"In this rain, I fear not, but I have to try. I must go."
"Good luck, Captain Burton."
The king's agent descended to the roof, then down the side of the building to his friend waiting below.
"I hope old Ted Toppletree wasn't exaggerating about that nose of yours, Fidget!" he said. "Because if he was, we might never see Algernon Swinburne again!"
The basset hound looked up at him mutely.
Swinburne's mind was a kaleidoscope of confused memories. The werewolves had carried him at great speed through the labyrinthine alleys of the city, gripping him so tightly that he could barely breathe, carrying him sometimes upright, sometimes upside-down. Talons had dug into his arms and shoulders, thighs and calves; and there'd been a long, dark tunnel that seemed to descend into the spongy, dripping flesh of the Earth itself.
He recalled that, at one point, he'd recovered his wits enough to start screaming at the top of his voice until his cries were smothered by a muskysmelling paw.
He opened his eyes.
He was in a huge chamber, on an upright but slightly inclined metal rack, his limbs splayed wide, straps tight around his wrists and ankles.
Artificial light flooded the cathedral-sized space; not gas light, but the white incandescence of lightning which had somehow been locked into globes hanging from the high ceiling. Beneath them, bathed in their brilliance, was machinery the like of which Swinburne had never seen nor even imagined before. There was no steam here; it was all electricity, which fizzed and crackled across the surfaces of megalithic devices, whipping from one bizarrely designed tower to another, filling the place with the smell of ozone and with sharp snaps, claps, and buzzes.
In particular, a great many bolts of energy were shooting into a chandelier-like structure suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the room. It resembled a big cast-iron wheel, with vertical stacks of disks arranged around its circumference. To these, wires and cables were affixed.
Swinburne's eyes followed their draping lines down to where they joined a crownlike construction below; a metal frame in which a number of long needles were secured, projecting a few inches outward. To these, the wires were attached. The other ends of the needles were embedded in the skull upon which the crown sat.
It was a hairless and grotesquely swollen dome, which bulged out over the ears of its owner; a head twice normal size; a phenomenal and hideous cranium! It projected forward over the wide face below, pushing bushy brows down low over eyes that glittered coldly from within their shadow. The nose was small, the mouth wide and set sternly, the jaw decorated with a big white beard which flowed down to the man's waist-for yes, the distorted creature was unmistakably a man.
Beneath the bloated head, a grey suit hung from a skeletal frame. The body was extremely withered, every visible inch of skin scored with wrinkles; rubber tubing emerged from the wrists to join devices that pumped and groaned beside the metal throne on which the man sat.
He looked, thought Swinburne, like a fetus cradled in a mechanical womb.
He also looked familiar.
"Charles Darwin!" cried the poet.
The eyes glistened, looking the poet up and down.
"You know us, boy?" Darwin's voice was deep and possessed a weirdly harmonic quality, as if two people were speaking at once.
"Of course! What's going on here? What are you up to? Who's 'us'?"
"We do not explain ourselves to children. Be quiet."
A figure silently stepped into view from behind Swinburne. It was a tall, smartly suited man with long sideburns and a handsome but entirely expressionless face. Just above his eyebrows, his head ended; the top of the skull was missing entirely, and where the brain should have been, there was a baffling device of metal and glass in which a great many tiny lights blinked on and off in a seemingly random manner. From the back of this, a cable descended to the floor and snaked across to Darwin's throne, disappearing into its base.
The machine-brained man stepped over to a trolley and lifted from it a syringe with a fearsomely long needle.
"What are you doing?" squealed Swinburne.
"This one is inquisitive, isn't he?" muttered Darwin to himself. "Yes, he is. Tall, too, which is unfortunate. Shall we test or discard immediately? Test, I think. Child, tell us: you are an orphan? Do you remember your parents? Were they also tall?"
Machine-brain levelled the syringe, its point touching Swinburne just below the centre of his forehead.
"For pity's sake, Darwin! I'm not an orphan, my parents are none of your damned business, and I'm no child! I'm twenty-four years old! I'm Algernon Charles Swinburne, the poet!"
There came a pause, then the syringe was lowered.
Machine-brain stepped away.
"You are a chimney sweep," declared Darwin. "Your skin and clothes are covered in soot. It is under your fingernails. Our collectors smelled it on you. They do not make mistakes."
Swinburne wrenched at the straps holding his wrists. They held firm.
"If by `collectors' you mean those wolf-things, I'm afraid they've been fooled this time. I'm a poet, I tell you! Let me go!"
"I was posing as a sweep."
"Why would a poet do such a thing?"
"To find out where the cursed wolves come from and why boys are being abducted!"
Darwin was silent for a moment, then said, "We are intrigued. Observe: we seem to have before us a man of a profoundly nonscientific bent. An evolutionary oddity, think you not? Of what use is a poet? Is he not merely an instance of self-indulgence; a decoration, if you will? That might be so, but pray consider the decorative qualities of certain species, say, for example, tropical birds. Do their colours and patterns not serve a purpose: to attract a mate or to confuse a predator? This creature, though his hair is of a remarkable hue, is notably puny in his development. Might we propose that his vocation has developed to compensate for his lack of physical prowess? Could it not be that, in the absence of an ability to attract a mate at a physical level, he has developed a'song' in much the same manner as a lark, which is a small dull-coloured bird with an extravagant call?"
"What the bleeding heck are you jabbering about!" shrilled Swinburne. "Let me off this damned rack! Unbuckle these straps at once!"
Darwin's huge head leaned to one side slightly and the beady eyes blinked.
"We must ask, though-why would a poet concern himself with our research?"
"What research?" demanded Swinburne. "Tell me what's going on here. Why are you abducting chimney sweeps? And what in the name of all that's holy has happened to your head, Darwin? It's damned disgusting! Why are you attached to those contraptions? Who is this automaton?"
A strange rattling emerged from the seated figure. Was it laughter?
"My, how inquisitive it is! So many questions! We have a proposal; a minor experiment; would it not be of interest to answer the young man? We have never explained ourselves to a nonrational mind. Will he show any capacity for thought that transcends moral outrage or will the fiction of God guide his response?"
"I don't believe in God!" screeched Swinburne.
"Ah! Listen! He claims disbelief. A faithless poet! We understand they classify themselves as `Bohemians.' On what basis does a mind that has neither scientific rationality nor superstitious faith operate? This is truly fascinating, do we not think? We do. We do. Proceed! Explain to him, and when we have analysed his response, he will be disposed of."
"What?" screamed Swinburne. "Disposed of? What does that mean?"
"Observe: the survival instinct in action," declared Darwin. "Algernon Charles Swinburne, we will explain our programme. We will then ask you to respond. Please do so clearly and in detail. To begin with, on the subject of our head. Your reaction to it is based on aesthetic values which serve no purpose. It is this size in order to incorporate the two brains which lie within. This body is that of Charles Darwin. The individual you call an automaton was once Francis Galton. The brains of those two men have been grafted together to create a four-lobed organ with comingled psychic fields which allow for the instantaneous transfer of thoughts. In effect, we have become one in order to overcome the limitations of language. We are no longer forced to resort to the symbolic in order to communicate our theories to one another; communication is direct and unsullied. There can be no misunderstanding or lack of comprehension.
"The body of Francis Galton we employ as a limb, for we are confined to this machinery which Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed to support us. Unfortunately, the human body is unable to maintain two brains without mechanical assistance."
"Wait!" protested Swinburne.
"It interrupts," harmonised Darwin. "We should not feel this sensation of impatience, for have we not already established that the poetical mind operates outside the logic of the scientific mind? We cannot expect it to restrain its impulses until it has heard all the information we wish to present. Yes, we agree. We must indulge the creature. What is it, Algernon Charles Swinburne?"
The little flame-headed poet, stretched out and strapped down, with machines sizzling, spitting, and shooting bolts of lightning all around him, felt as if he were trapped in a nightmare. With the squashed, gargoylelike face of Darwin peering down at him and the figure of Galton standing nearby, motionless but for the winking lights atop his head, the scene could have been a painting by Hieronymus Bosch come to life.
Fighting his rising hysteria, Swinburne shook his head and tried to order his thoughts.
"The Origin of Species made you famous-or should I say notorious-two years ago," he said. "When the church issued death threats against you, you went into hiding, but by then your face was familiar to the general public and it certainly didn't have that horrible big bonce towering over it. In other words, the machinery encasing you wasn't required until a later date. Yet '59 is also the year Brunel died, therefore he cannot possibly have designed it."
Again, the horrid rattle sounded.
"The poet makes a logical argument, though the solution to the apparent paradox is simple."
"Oh, really?" said Swinburne, sarcastically. "Please enlighten me!"
"Brunel," came the response. "Step forward."
To the left of the throne, one of the huge pieces of machinery suddenly rose from the floor with a loud hiss of steam and clanged forward.
The most famous and successful engineer in the world, if this was truly Brunel, was no longer the short, dark-haired, cigar-chomping man of memory.
He stood on three triple-jointed metal legs. These were attached to a horizontal disk-shaped chassis affixed to the bottom of the main body, which, shaped like a barrel lying on its side, appeared to be constructed from wood and banded with strips of studded brass. There were domed protrusions at either end of it, each bearing nine multijointed arms, each arm ending in a different tool, ranging from delicate fingers to slashing blades, drills to hammers, spanners to welders.
A further dome rose from the top of Brunel's body. From this, too, arms extended-six in all-though these were more like tentacles, so long and flexible were they. Each ended in a clamplike hand.
At various places around the body, revolving cogwheels poked through slots in the wood, and on one shoulder-it was impossible to say whether it was the left or right because Brunel had no discernible front or back-a pis- tonlike device slowly rose and fell. On the other, something resembling a bellows pumped up and down, making a ghastly wheezing noise. Small exhaust pipes expelled puffs of white vapour from either end of the barrel.
Amid all the electrical machinery, this great steaming hulk seemed strangely primitive.
It thumped across the floor and squatted at Swinburne's side.
A hot cloud blew from one of its vents and rolled over the poet's face.
Bells chimed from the bulky mechanism.
"Our dear friend Isambard's voice takes some getting used to," said Darwin. "He just confirmed that he is very much alive."
Swinburne laughed. "I'm dreaming!" he cried. "I'm dreaming!"
"Most interesting," said Darwin. "Observe how the poet denies the input of his senses. This is a fascinating reaction. We suggest a rupture between the corporeal sense of existence and the acquired sense of intellectual identity. Indeed. Algernon Charles Swinburne quite literally cannot believe his eyes. See how they have lost focus. We propose that this is a symptom of the medical condition termed `shock,' caused, in this instance, by the unfamiliarity of his environment. Were he of the lower order of beasts, this would ensure his destruction. Let us continue with this diverting experiment. Perhaps a brief explanation of Brunel's continued existence will bridge the rupture? Yes, but wait; we have opened a further path of investigation. We are intrigued by the possibility that a being, when placed in an environment that is alien to it, might react in this manner. If evolution is a matter of adapt or die, then is not shock entirely counterproductive to the process? Why, then, does the condition of shock exist? What is its function? We must experiment further. Agreed. However, let us first continue with our faux chimney sweep.
"Algernon Charles Swinburne, what you are looking at might be termed a life-support machine. It is steam-powered, to allow full mobility, for the Engineers have not yet created a technique whereby sufficient electrical power might be stored in a portable container. Our colleague Isambard had himself placed inside the machine in 1859. It has kept him alive since, enabling his continued rule of the Technologists."
"Well, this is all very nice," mumbled Swinburne, as far as possible cow ering away from the gigantic form of Brunel. "But to get back to the bloody point, why are you abducting chimney sweeps?"
Darwin's bony fingers flexed. "Ah. He regains focus. Excellent! Shall we tell him? Yes, proceed. We need fear nothing, for he will be destroyed shortly. Algernon Charles Swinburne, at some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world."
"Is that so?"
"It is the evolutionary path. The questions which form the basis for our experimental programme are these: Can the British Empire, as the dominant civilised race, hasten the process? What form shall the future Empire take? And which physical attributes will prove most beneficial to the people of the Empire? To this end, our experiment is comprised of three elements.
"The first is designed to remove the burden of survival from the Empire's citizens in order that they may concentrate exclusively upon the development of their scientific and inventive skills. Thus, Mr. Brunel is overseeing the rapid introduction of machines which will, ultimately, fulfill all the material functions required to sustain life, from the provision and distribution of food to the creation and maintenance of dwellings."
"And what of those of us who don't want to be scientists?" interrupted Swinburne.
"The second branch of our experiment has been designed to deal with such as you. It concerns selective breeding-eugenics in its purest form. The greater mass of humanity, which has not yet evolved the ability to think rationally, is disordered and unpredictable. It is driven by animal desires which, even after the machines eliminate hunger and want, will continue to slow the evolutionary process. We therefore intend a biological intervention to bring order to the masses, a programme through which each individual will gain a specialism that contributes to the whole.
"Using chimney sweeps as our test subject, we are manipulating their biology in order that they and their descendants remain small in stature, a form which is ideal for the function they perform. Indeed, we are enhancing the boys by breeding into them additional characteristics which will serve them well in their specialism. We aim to follow their progress through successive generations, and, once the technique is perfected, we will create other specialisms, such as miners with perfect night vision, labourers with immense physical strength, and so forth. The greater mass of humanity will become as a machine, its separate parts functioning smoothly, the whole mechanism serving the scientists.
"The third aspect of the experiment, which is being conducted by our colleague Nurse Nightingale-"
Swinburne let loose a gasp, for he knew of Florence Nightingale; it was rumoured that Richard Monckton Milnes had proposed to her ten years previously, and, though she refused him, his continued attentions had driven her to a nervous breakdown.
11 -involves the raising of the lower beasts to a level where they might serve humanity more effectively."
Swinburne interrupted again: "Your wolf-men are an example of this?"
"Observe his impulsive inquisitiveness," harmonised Darwin and Galton from the single, grotesque body. "He has not the patience to gather all the facts before formulating his enquiries but must express each question the moment it occurs to him. This is not the behaviour of an evolved mind. Nevertheless, we must address him on his own terms, else how will he understand?
"Algernon Charles Swinburne, you are correct: the creatures are not men made wolves, but wolves made men. We must confess, our methodology in this area requires a great deal more testing and analysis before we can perfect it. The wolf-men have an unfortunate biological imbalance which causes a propensity for spontaneous combustion. Nurse Nightingale is looking into the problem."
"I hope she burns her fingers!" muttered Swinburne.
"We will continue. There exists a secondary experiment which combines aspects of the first and third programmes. It involves the mechanical enhancement of the human form. Behold."
Darwin gestured to Swinburne's right. The poet looked but saw only bulky contrivances, sparking electrodes, cables, pipes, flashing lights, and objects his eyes could barely interpret.
It was the front of a large lozenge-shaped contraption, a slab of metal into which dials and gauges were set, standing upright but inclined slightly backward. It occurred to the poet that it somewhat resembled a sarcophagus, whose lid was now lifting of its own accord.
White vapour burst from its sides and fell as snowflakes to the floor.
The lid slid forward then silently glided to one side, revealing the contents within.
Swinburne saw a naked man whose pale skin glistened with frost. Tubes entered his flesh from the inside edges of the metal coffin, piercing the skin of his scarred thighs, of his arms and his neck. The upper-left side of his head was missing. The left eye had been replaced with some sort of lens set in rings of brass. Above this, where there should have been forehead and scalp, there was a studded brass dome with a glass panel-like a small porthole-in its front. Just above the ear, a winding key projected.
The human part of the man's face was settled in repose and, though the bushy beard had been removed, Swinburne at once recognised the features.
"Good Lord!" he gasped. "John Hanning Speke!"
"Yes," affirmed Darwin. "Soon he will be recovered sufficiently to serve us. As you see, the left lobe of his brain has been replaced with a babbage."
"A probability calculator crafted by our colleague, Charles Babbage. It will, among a great many other things, magnify Mr. Speke's ability to analyse situations and formulate strategic responses to them. The device is powered by clockwork, for portability."
"He agreed to this?" mumbled Swinburne.
"He was in no position to agree or disagree. He was unconscious and dying. We saved his life."
The sarcophagus slid shut, hiding Speke from view.
"Algernon Charles Swinburne," said Darwin, levelling his gimlet eyes at the poet, "we would now analyse your response. Speak."
Swinburne stared bleakly at his captor.
He coughed and licked his lips.
"To summarize," the poet said, hoarsely, "you are flooding the Empire with new machines that will destabilise the current social order; you intend to create a new social order comprised of specialist humans who will serve as drones in what amounts to a scientific hive; and you are interfering with animal biology in order to manufacture a sublevel of mindless slaves. All this to expand the British Empire, under the rule of scientists, until it dominates the entire world. Am I right?"
Darwin nodded his huge head and said, "We are impressed by his ability to reduce the complex to a simplistic statement which is, nevertheless, essentially correct."
"And you want my response?" asked Swinburne.
"Yes, we do."
"Very well then; here it is. You are completely, profoundly, and irreversibly fucking niad.!"
With a blast of steam, Isambard Kingdom Brunel slowly lifted his great frame until it towered over the little poet.
"It's quite all right, Isambard," said Darwin. "Calm yourself."
The great machine froze, but for the piston on one shoulder, which rose and fell slowly, and the bellows on the other, which creaked and gasped like the respiration of a dying man.
"It's absurd!" shrilled Swinburne. "Quite apart from the moral and ethical issues, how in blue blazes can you expect to accurately monitor the three branches of the experiment when you are conducting them simultaneously in the same arena? And what about the time factor? The chimney sweeps, for example! Information from such an experiment will take generations to gather! Generations! Do you expect to live forever?"
For a third time, Darwin's rattling laugh sounded between the fizzle and claps of electrical charges.
"He has surprised us!" he declared. "He has pierced to the heart of the matter! Time, indeed, is the key, Algernon Charles Swinburne. However, we have-"
The cry rang out from somewhere behind the poet, so loud that it echoed above the chamber's general cacophony.
"What is this interruption?" demanded Darwin, and Francis Galton's body jerked two paces forward, dragging the long cable behind it, raising its arm and brandishing the syringe like a weapon.
With a whirring noise, one of Brunel's arms shot out and a metal clamp closed on the automaton's wrist.
"Forgive us, Isambard; we were taken by surprise, that is all. Come here, Mr. Oliphant; explain yourself."
As Brunel's arm retracted and Galton's lowered, Laurence Oliphant stepped into view.
"My hat!" exclaimed Swinburne. "What a merry freak show this is!"
Oliphant threw him a malicious glance. "I don't see a mark on his forehead," said the albino. His smooth tones made the poet shudder. "Have you extracted any cells?"
"There was no need," answered Darwin. "For, despite appearances to the contrary, he is not a boy but a man."
"I know. He's Swinburne, the poet. The little idiot has been much in the company of Burton these past days."
"Is that so? We were not aware of this."
Oliphant banged the end of his cane on the floor impatiently.
"Of course not!" he snapped. "You've been too busy revealing your plans to question him about his own!"
"It was an experiment."
"Blast it! You are a machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions, but did it not cross your minds that in telling him about the programme you are giving information to the enemy?"
"We were not aware that he is an enemy."
"You fool! You should consider every man a potential enemy until he is proven otherwise."
"You are correct. It was an interesting exercise but the experiment is finished and we are satisfied. Algernon Charles Swinburne is of no further use to us. You may dispose of him outside."
"I'll do it here," said Oliphant, drawing the rapier from his cane.
"No," said Darwin. "This is a laboratory. It is a delicate environment. There must be no blood spilled here. Do it in the courtyard. Question him first. Find out how much Burton knows. Then dispose of the corpse in the furnace."
"Very well. Release him. Mr. Brunel, bring him outside, please."
The blank-eyed Francis Galton placed the syringe back onto the trolley, approached Swinburne, and began to unbuckle the straps. One of Brunel's limbs unfolded and the digits at its end clamped shut around the poet's forearm.
"Get offl" screamed Swinburne. "Help! Help!"
"Enough of your histrionics," snarled Oliphant. "There's no one to hear them and I find them irritating."
"Sod off!" spat Swinburne.
Galton pulled open the last of the straps and Brunel swung the little poet up into the air.
"Ow! Ow! I can walk, curse you!"
"Follow," commanded Oliphant.
With Isambard Kingdom Brunel clanking and thudding along behind, holding the kicking and squealing Swinburne high, Laurence Oliphant crossed the vast laboratory and passed through huge double doors into a large rectangular courtyard. Swinburne was surprised to see a noonday sky abovehe had no idea how long he'd been unconscious.
He instantly recognised the location: he was in Battersea Power Station, which towered around this central enclosure, a colossal copper rod rising up in each of the four corners.
Brunel released the poet, who landed in a heap on the wet ground.
Oliphant held the point of his blade at Swinburne's throat.
"You may go, Brunel."
A bell chimed and the hulking machine stamped back through the doors, which closed behind it.
Oliphant stepped away and sheathed his rapier. He turned and loped across the courtyard to the entrance, a big double gate into which a normalsized door was set. This latter he unbolted and opened.
"Your escape route." He smiled, his pink eyes glinting, the vertical pupils narrowing. He moved away from the exit. "Go! Run!"
Algernon Swinburne looked at the albino curiously. What was he playing at?
He scrambled to his feet and began to walk toward the door. Oliphant continued to move away, giving the poet more and more space.
"Why?" asked Swinburne.
Oliphant remained silent, the smile playing about his face, the eyes following Swinburne's every step.
The poet shrugged and increased his pace.
He was less than four feet from the portal when Oliphant suddenly sprang at him.
Swinburne shrieked and ran but the albino was phenomenally fast and swept down on the little man in a blur of movement, grabbing Swinburne by the back of the collar just as he was stepping across the threshold and yanking him backward.
Swinburne flew through the air, hit the ground, rolled in a spray of rainwater, and found himself lying exactly where Brunel had dropped him.
Oliphant cackled; a cruel, vile noise.
Swinburne staggered to his feet. "Cat and mouse," he said under his breath. "And I'm the bloody mouse!"
When we adjust some element of an animal's nature, a quite different element alters of its own accord, as if there is some system of checks and balances at work. What we cannot fathom is why the unplanned changes seem entirely pointless from a functional perspective. I an baffled. Glalton is baffled. Darwin is baffled. All we can do is experiment, experiment, experiment!
Sir Richard Francis Burton arrived at the Squirrel Hill Cemetery and quickly found the area where the loops-garous had been feeding. Graves had been torn open, coffins ripped apart, and putrefying corpses shredded and gnawed at, left scattered across the wet mud.
Even though, while in Africa, he'd become fascinated by the notion of cannibalism, Burton actually possessed a deep-seated fear of the ghoulish. Anything connected with graveyards and corpses unnerved him. The many cadavers he'd seen, and even accidentally trodden on, in the East End had filled him with horror; Montague Penniforth's ravaged carcass had sickened him to the core; and now this! His mouth felt dry and his heart hammered in his chest.
At his feet, Fidget growled and whined and pulled at his leash.
Burton squatted and took the dog's head in his hands, looking into the big brown eyes.
"Listen, Fidget," he said quietly. "This damned rain has probably washed away the scent but somehow you have to find it. Do you understand? My friend's life depends on it!"
He took from his pocket a pair of Swinburne's white gloves and pressed them against the basset hound's nose.
"Seek, Fidget! Seek!"
The dog yelped and, as Burton stood, started to snuffle about enthusiastically, moving in an ever-widening circle. Repeatedly, as he came close to the scattered bones and lumps of worm-ridden flesh, he let loose a coughing bark-wuff./-which Burton guessed indicated not the odour of the corpses but the scent of the werewolves. This could be useful, for if their musk was that strong, it would be easier for the dog to follow them than Swinburne.
Ultimately, this proved to be the case. Fidget led him to an area of the cemetery where, even after the rainfall, it was obvious that a struggle had taken place. Deep grooves showed where boot heels had been dragged through the mud and around them were the many footprints of loups-garous. Then all indications of Swinburne's presence vanished and the paw marks trailed away toward a collapsed section of the graveyard's wall.
"They picked him up and carried him," muttered Burton.
Fidget was gazing at him with an apologetic expression. Swinburne's trail had vanished.
"Don't worry, old fellow, the game's not over yet!"
Burton pulled Fidget over to the gap in the wall, stepped through, crouched, and pushed the dog's nose into one of the werewolf paw prints.
A deep rumble sounded in the basset hound's chest and his snout wrinkled in disgust.
"Follow!" ordered Burton.
Fidget whined, gave a yelp, and pulled his master back toward the cemetery.
"No! Wrong direction! That way! Go!"
The hound stopped, blinked at him, looked back along the trail, turned, and started away from the wall.
"Good dog!" encouraged his new master.
Dragged along behind the excited hound, the king's agent descended the hill, skirted a long fence, and passed into a rubbish-strewn alleyway that ran between the backyards of terraced houses until it emerged onto Devonport Street. Fidget turned to the right and raced along, down the inclining road and across the main thoroughfare of Cable Street toward the Thames. Burton was astonished at the dog's assured manner. The rain had been falling for hours, yet enough of the werewolves' scent remained for the remarkable hound to follow.
People milled about, many turning to stare at the man and the small basset hound; there were yells and catcalls but Burton barely noticed, so intent was he on his quest.
Reaching the bank of the river, they turned right again, following the course of the Wapping Wall. The terrible reek of the city's artery assailed Burton's nostrils and turned his stomach, yet Fidget kept on, his nose able to separate one stink from another, pushing aside the distractions, focusing only on that which he'd been ordered to follow.
With the horrors of the Cauldron seething around them, they pressed on in a westerly direction for nearly two miles until London Bridge hove into view in the distance. Across the road, Burton spotted the end of Mews Street and the boarded-up pawnshop where he'd met with Paul Gustave Dore.
Past the docks and the Tower of London went the man and his hound, and down a set of stone steps to a narrow walkway that ran alongside the contaminated waters of the Thames. The stone surface was slick with slime and, though the rain had abated somewhat, the muck squelched beneath Burton's tread and footing was precarious. One slip and he could end up in the river!
They passed into the gloom beneath London Bridge and there Fidget stopped and snuffled at the base of a narrow wooden door upon which a notice warned "Strictly No Entry." Burton put his shoulder to the portal and pushed. With a deep grinding noise, it scraped open, revealing a square chamber.
The king's agent reached into his coat pocket, withdrew a clockwork lantern, and gave it a twist. The flame flared into life inside it and the sides of the device spilled light into the room. It was completely empty but for muddy paw prints on the floor which led through a dark archway in the opposite wall. Urged onward by the dog, Burton pushed the door shut and crossed the chamber. Beyond the archway, stone steps descended into darkness. He followed them.
The deeper he went, the damper it became, until the stone walls were literally running with water. After many minutes had passed, he finally came to the base of the stairs and here found a corridor cut through solid rock, its floor hidden beneath filthy water, with three thick pipes running along the lefthand wall. Gas mains, he supposed.
"You'll not sniff out their trail here," he muttered to Fidget, "but this is the way they must have come, so we'll press on. Here-up with you!"
He bent and hoisted the basset hound up into his arms, then moved down into the cold water. Two steps he descended until he reached the flat floor. The liquid swirled around his knees, filling his boots and clogging his nostrils with the putrid stench of rotting fish.
Droplets fell from above, hitting the water with echoing and strangely musical plops.
He waded along the narrow tunnel, his lantern ticking in his hand, casting its fitful glow on the streaming walls and metal pipes, which shimmered and glistened in the light. Soon there was total darkness ahead, total darkness behind, and Burton experienced the same sensation he'd had when rising through the fog in the rotorchair: that he was moving but going nowhere; that this journey had no end.
He pressed on.
He was under the Thames, that was obvious, and the thought of that great weight above terrified him. He'd never been good with enclosed spaces. Bismillah! What he'd give now for the endless plains of Africa or the evershifting desert sands of Arabia!
"Why did I agree to this?" he whispered into Fidget's ear. "Serving an Empire whose actions I deplore, in a country I can't call home?"
Fidget whimpered and rested his chin on his master's shoulder.
Eventually, and quite unexpectedly, the tunnel ended at a Hight of stairs.
Breathing a heartfelt sigh of relief, Burton stepped out of the water and ascended. He came to a room in every way identical to the one at the other end of the subterranean passage, and, setting Fidget onto the floor, he pushed the hound's nose into a paw print.
"Follow! There's a good boy!"
The dog crossed to the door opposite the entrance to the stairs and looked meaningfully at Burton, as if to say, "Open it!"
The famous adventurer did so and stepped out onto another slimecovered walkway. He was still beneath London Bridge but now on the Southwark side. He snapped off his lantern and shoved it into a pocket.
Fidget led him up onto Tooley Street, where he was met with a scene of utter devastation. This part of London, the Hay's Wharf area, had been completely destroyed by a disastrous fire back in June. Its warehouses had burned for two weeks, and even now, three months later and with the rain falling upon it, the wreckage was still visibly smouldering. To the east, almost as far as the eye could see, lay a ravaged landscape; a black wasteland sprawling beneath a dirty haze that even the rain couldn't wash away.
Burton winced. This was a painful sight, for among the warehouses had been Grindlays, the place where he'd stored the bulk of the Oriental manuscripts he'd spent so much of his Army pay on while in India, plus trunks filled with Oriental and African costumes and mementoes, and a great many of his personal notebooks.
It had all been consumed by the blaze.
He remembered with grim amusement how the clerk at Grindlays' head office, upon seeing his distress, had asked, "Did you lose any plate or jewellery, sir?"
"No, nothing of that nature," had replied Burton.
"Ah, well!" exclaimed the clerk, looking much happier. "That's not so bad then!"
Fidget tugged at his leash.
They turned westward and followed the river as far as Southwark Bridge before then turning inland. With his nose close to the ground, Fidget pulled the king's agent into a bystreet and from there into the depths of the borough.
Burton could see that the route the basset hound was following would probably be quiet at night but now it was past midday and the streets were thronged with citizens going about their business. Pushing their way through the crowds, the man and the dog passed through alley after alley, out of the borough and into Lambeth, through Lambeth and on to Vauxhall, until they finally emerged on Nine Elms Road. Here, the scent trail veered off the highway and through a hole in a wooden fence. It continued ahead, running parallel to the thoroughfare, and already Burton had an idea of the destination, for the sky in front of him was broken by four tall chimneylike structures.
Swinburne couldn't stop laughing.
His entire body hurt. He was bruised and lacerated and every injury was sending a thrill of pleasure coursing through his nerves.
Laurence Oliphant was being driven to a blind fury. He'd thrown down his sword cane, removed and dropped his jacket, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and was now setting about the poet with unrestrained viciousness.
Oh yes, he was going to kill the little man, but he'd be damned if he'd make it easy for the redheaded pipsqueak! No, a long, slow, terrifying death, that's what Swinburne was going to get.
So again and again he allowed his prey to reach that temptingly open door, and again and again he pounced on him at the last second and hurled him back into the courtyard.
And Swinburne laughed.
Oliphant circled the poet, grinned diabolically, swooped in, and struck. Swinburne spun into the air and thudded onto the ground, his clothes shredded, the skin beneath ripped.
He dragged himself along, a ragged, bloodied mess, his eyes wild, his giggle becoming a gurgle as blood streamed from his nose and split lips.
In four long strides, Oliphant was at his side.
"What are you?" gasped Swinburne. "One of Nurse Nightingale's foul experiments?"
"Shut your mouth!"
"What did she do to you, Oliphant?"
"She saved me."
"Death, Swinburne, death. I overindulged in opium, became an addict, and slipped into a coma in a Limehouse drug den. Miss Nightingale rescued the functioning parts of my brain and fused them with a humanised animal."
"My white panther."
"Ah, that explains it!"
"The lingering odour of cat piss I smell every time you come close."
Oliphant emitted a ferocious hiss, grabbed the poet-one hand clutching the back of his neck, the other his right thigh-lifted him, whirled around, and flung him high into the air. Swinburne smashed into the base of a wall, dropped, rolled loosely, and lay still, his green eyes level with the ground, watching the albino's feet approaching.
Through bubbling blood, he croaked:
"Thou hast conquered, 0 pale Galilean;
The world has grown grey f -om thy breath;
We have drunken from things Lethean,
And fed on the fullness of death."
Oliphant bent over him. "Run, little man," he whispered. "Run for the door."
Swinburne rolled onto his back and looked up into the wicked pink eyes.
"Thank you," he mumbled. "But I have it in mind to lie here and compose a poem or two, if you don't mind."
"I mind," answered Oliphant. He grabbed the poet's throat and yanked him up. Then he lifted him off his feet, fingers tight around the skinny neck, and watched with interest as his victim's face began to darken.
Swinburne kicked and struggled, clutching at his assailant's wrists, but couldn't break free.
He caught sight of something over Oliphant's shoulder and suddenly relaxed, hanging limply.
Somehow, he managed to smile.
Oliphant looked at him in wonder.
A deep, commanding voice rang out: "Drop him!"
The albino whirled.
Sir Richard Francis Burton stood just inside the gate. He had picked Oliphant's swordstick up and held it, unsheathed, in his hand. At the adven turer's feet, a small dog backed toward the door, stepped through, and hid behind it, peeking out at Oliphant.
"Burton," breathed the albino.
He let go of Swinburne, who slumped to the ground and lay still, quietly chuckling.
"Come here, you bastard," snapped the king's agent.
"I'm unarmed," revealed Oliphant, walking forward with his arms spread wide.
"I don't care."
"That's not very gentlemanly."
"There are many who claim I am not a gentleman," noted Burton. "They call me Ruffian Dick. At this particular moment in time, it's a title I intend to live down to."
He suddenly sprang at Oliphant and thrust at his heart. The feline man twisted and jumped back, the point of the rapier catching and slicing his shirtsleeve.
"I'm too quick for you, Burton!" he panted, then, lightning fast, ducked down, pounced in, and swiped at the adventurer's thigh with his sharp talons.
Burton predicted the move and caught the albino's hand in his own.
"My reactions aren't bad either," he said.
His grip tightened and bones crunched.
Burton dropped the rapier and sent his fist crashing into the albino's jaw.
"And I think you'll find that I'm stronger."
With his left hand mercilessly breaking the bones in Oliphant's right, Burton set about pounding his opponent's face to a pulp. Blood spurted as the panther-man's nose snapped and flattened. Canine teeth broke. Skin tore.
Burton was thoroughly scientific about it. He revived the boxing skills of his youth, choosing where to strike with a cold detachment, timing his blows to perfection, measuring the damage to ensure that the albino suffered every crunching blow without slipping into unconsciousness.
It was more than punishment; it was torture, and Burton had no qualms about it.
As the beating continued, Fidget cautiously stepped back in through the door and began to skirt the wall toward Swinburne. Glancing repeatedly at his master, he padded around the edge of the big rectangular space then crept in until he reached Swinburne's feet. He sniffed at the blood-spattered boots, pushed his nose into the too-short trouser leg, then bit the skinny ankle.
"Yaargh!" screeched the poet.
Burton turned, and in that unguarded second, Laurence Oliphant ripped his mangled hand from the explorer's grasp and, with a sudden thrust of his legs, propelled himself away. He rolled, leaped to his feet, and sprinted to the huge doors of the power station. Perfectly balanced, they swung open at his touch and slammed shut behind him.
The king's agent, who'd instantly thrown himself after the albino, crashed into the doors, pushed them, pulled them, and realised that his enemy had escaped.
He hurried over to Swinburne and shoved Fidget away.
"Are you all right, Algy?"
"Bloody ecstatic, Richard."
"Can you walk?"
"I thought I could, then that blasted dog bit me!"
"Idiot. It was just a nip. Come on, up with you."
He slipped his arm beneath the poet's shoulders and heaved him upright. There was barely an inch of his friend that wasn't smeared with blood.
"I have to get you seen to as quickly as possible," he said. "We need to get this bleeding stopped."
"It was marvellous," gasped Swinburne. "I took everything he dished out! Was that courage, Richard?"
"Yes, Algy; that was courage."
"Splendid! Absolutely splendid! Oh, by the way, John Speke is in there."
Before Burton could reply, a howl echoed from the other end of the courtyard.
"Werewolves!" breathed the king's agent. "We've got to get out of here!"
He dragged his friend toward the door in the main gate, scooping up Oliphant's swords tick on the way, but before he got there half a dozen redcloaked wolf-men loped from an arched opening and came racing across the courtyard.
The head of the pack glared out from the shadow of its hood, displayed its sharp teeth in a terrible grin, extended a claw toward the retreating Englishmen, then exploded into flames.
The remaining creatures scattered, diving away from the sudden inferno. In the midst of this confusion, Swinburne thrust himself away from Burton, plunged at something on the ground, snatched it up, then launched himself through the door in the gate, knocking Burton backward. They landed in a heap outside the power station with Fidget tangled in their legs.
The king's agent pushed himself up, grabbed the door, and pulled it shut. There was no way to secure it from the outside, so, while the werewolves were distracted, there was only one thing to do: run!
He grabbed Swinburne, threw him over his shoulder, and took to his heels.
With the basset hound scampering along beside him, he sprinted westward over a patch of wasteland toward railway lines and, beyond them, the busy Kingstown Road and Chelsea Bridge.
"Hurry! They're coming!" cried Swinburne.
A quick backward glance proved the poet right: the loups-garous were pouring through the gate.
Despite his short legs, Fidget put on an astonishing show of speed and sprang ahead across the railway track. Burton tried to keep up but Swinburne's weight slowed him and now he spotted, to his right, a locomotive pelting down the line. There was no way, it seemed, to make it to the other side before the engine passed; his escape route was blocked and the wolf-men were gaining fast.
He set his mind to the task, sucked in a deep breath, and focused every ounce of his being into his pumping legs. Run! Run!
The events of the next few seconds happened so quickly that his consciousness couldn't register them, yet he dreamed about them for many months afterward.
The locomotive was upon him.
He put everything he had into a jump across its path.
His feet left the ground.
Claws ripped through the back of his jacket and ploughed through his skin.
A deafening whistle.
A wall of metal to his right.
Gravel slamming into him.
A thunderous roar.
The blur of passing wheels and, under them, flames.
A receding rumble.
Slowly dissipating steam.
The grey sky.
A spot of rain on his face.
A groan at his side.
A moment of silence.
Then: "Ow! For Pete's sake! The blessed beast bit me again!"
Sir Richard Francis Burton started to laugh. It began in his stomach and rose through his chest and shook his whole body and he didn't want it to stop. He laughed at India. He laughed at Arabia. He laughed at Africa. He laughed at the Nile and the Royal Geographical Society and John Hanning bloody Speke. He laughed at Spring Heeled Jack and the wolf-men and the albino and that silly damned dog that kept biting Swinburne's ankle.
He laughed away his petulant anger, his resentments, his confusion, and his reluctance, and when he finally stopped laughing, he was Sir Richard Francis Burton, the king's agent, in the service of the country of his birth, and it no longer mattered that he was an outsider or that he stood in opposition to the Empire's foreign policies. He had a job to do.
His laughter abated. He lay silently and looked at the grey sky.
London muttered and grumbled.
He sat up and examined Swinburne. The poet had lapsed into unconsciousness. Fidget the basset hound was sitting at the little man's feet, happily chewing at a trouser leg.
The railway track was empty; the locomotive had disappeared from view behind a group of warehouses, though the tracks were still vibrating from its passing.
The loupr-garous were nowhere to be seen; all swept away by the train.
He stood, hoisted his friend back onto his shoulder, and, using Oliphant's cane to help him balance, walked down a gravel slope toward a wooden fence beyond which lay Kingstown Road.
He was halfway down when a loud throbbing filled the air.
Burton turned and looked back at the power station. An incredible machine was rising from it, seemingly pushed upward by the boiling cone of steam that belched from its underside. It was a rotorship; an immense oval platform of grey metal with portholes set along its edge. Its front was pointed and curved upward like the prow of a galleon and from the sides, like banks of oars, pylons projected outward. At their ends, atop vertical shafts, huge wings rotated faster than the eye could follow.
Was Speke aboard that ship? And who else?
He had to get Swinburne treated; had to find out what the poet knew.
As the rotorship ascended and moved northward, Burton continued on down to the thoroughfare and made his way along to Chelsea Bridge. Here he found himself back among London's seething population. There were cries and screams as people caught sight of the little man slumped over his shoulder, and in no time at all a policeman came running over.
"What's all this, sir? Has there been an accident?"
"Yes, Constable," answered Burton. "Would you flag down a carriage for me? I have to get this fellow to a doctor!"
"I should ride along with you. I'll need to report this!"
"Fine, but hurry, man!"
The policeman ran out into the road and stopped a horse-drawn fourwheeler, ejecting its indignant passengers.
"I say! What the devil do you think you're playing at?" objected the portly old gentleman who suddenly found himself without a ride. "My wife is sixty-two, don't you know!"
"Harold!" gasped his heavily made-up spouse.
"Oh, er, sorry, my dear," stammered the erstwhile passenger; then, upon spying Swinburne as Burton heaved him onto the seat, he cried: "Great Scott! The poor fellow! By all means take the carriage! By all means!"
"Much obliged," said Burton, picking up Fidget and climbing in.
The constable followed. "Where to?" he asked.
"Bayham Street, Mornington Crescent! As fast as possible!"
The policeman repeated the address to the driver then shut the door and sat back as the vehicle jerked into motion.
"Constable Yates," he said by way of an introduction. "So what's the story? You both look proper beat up!"
"King's business, Yates! Take a look at this."
Burton took his credentials from his wallet and showed them to the constable.
"Bless me! The king's signature! You're the boss, then, sir. What can I do to help?"
Fishing his notebook out of his pocket, Burton started writing.
"We'll drop you at Scotland Yard," he said. "I want you to deliver this note to Detective Inspector Trounce. I'm recommending an immediate police raid on Battersea Power Station!"
"The Technologist headquarters? That's rather a tall order, if you don't mind me saying so!"
Burton didn't reply, but continued to fill the page with his tiny, cramped handwriting.
The carriage swung eastward onto Grosvenor Road and from there followed the river up via Millbank, past the Houses of Parliament, and on to the Yard. Barely stopping to allow Constable Yates to hop out, it raced on along the Strand, weaving in and out of the traffic, the two horses flecked with sweat, rounded into Kingsway, and continued on up Southampton Row and Eversholt Street. It shot past Mornington Crescent before careening into Bayham Street.
"Here!" shouted Burton as they reached number 3, and he leaped out as the carriage came to a halt. "Wait!"
Striding swiftly to the front door, he gave the bellpull a violent tug and waited impatiently for a response. He was just reaching for it again when the door opened.
"Why, Captain Burton!" exclaimed Widow Wheeltapper. "How nice of you to call!"
"My apologies, ma'am, but there's been an accident. I require Sister Raghavendra's assistance. Is she at home?"
"Oh my! I shall send Polly for her at once!"
Burton stepped into the house and sprang up the stairs, calling back: "Pray don't trouble yourself, my good woman! I'll go!"
"But propriety, Captain! Propriety!" cried the old woman. Her visitor, though, was already halfway to the upper apartment. He was met at the top of the stairs by Sister Raghavendra, who'd come to investigate the commotion.
"Sadhvi!" cried Burton. "I need your help! My friend has been injured! Can you come?"
"At once, Captain!" she said decisively. "A moment!"
She ducked back into her room and emerged a minute later wearing her nurse's bonnet and her jacket, and carrying a carpet bag.
They ran down the stairs and out of the front door, leaving the flustered old widow calling after them: "A chaperone! My goodness, young lady! You haven't a chaperone!"
"Montagu Place, at the double!" commanded Burton as they reached the carriage and clambered in.
The driver cracked his whip and the panting horses set off at a gallop.
Inside the rocking and bumping cabin, Sister Raghavendra examined Swinburne.
"What on earth happened to him?"
"Your albino friend happened," said Burton.
She paled, her fingers running over the poet's skin, examining the wounds, gauging their severity.
"The albino?" she gasped. "But this looks like the work of a wild animal! "
"How is he, Sister? He's been unconscious for some time."
"He's not unconscious, Captain Burton. He's asleep. He must be utterly exhausted."
Turning from Hampstead Road into Euston Road, the carriage stampeded on past velocipedes and steam-horses, between carts and hansoms, with pedestrians scattering as it thundered along, until, on Marylebone Road, the traffic became so thick that progress was slowed to a crawl.
Burton poked his head out of the window and shouted up to the driver, "Take to the back streets, man!"
The driver obeyed, and as Burton had hoped, the less direct route proved easier to navigate. Minutes later, the carriage drew up outside his home.
"Will you bring the dog?" he asked the nurse as he stepped out and lifted Swinburne. She nodded and scooped up Fidget.
After passing a handful of coins up to the driver, Burton carried his friend to the front door, opened it, and ascended the stairs to the second floor, where he deposited Swinburne in the spare bedroom. For the first time, he noticed that the poet was clutching something. It was a coat, which Burton pulled from his hands and flung into a wardrobe.
Sister Raghavendra, who'd followed him into the room, laid Fidget down and opened her carpet bag. She started to pull out vials, rolls of bandages, and other tools of her trade.
"I'll need a basin of hot water, Captain," she advised. "This is going to take some time. I've never seen so many cuts