VIII. Lydia

The Wrong Way To Build A Bridge, or The Memoirs of Lady Lydia Parker-Wright, artificer and explorer

Vol IV. March 24th

Lady Lydia Parker-Wright

Lady Lydia Parker-Wright

Our visitor arrived promptly 9am, and was a most unwelcome interruption to morning tea. I was seated, as was my habit, in the parlour of our London residence, with mother and Aunt Maude, discussing matters of gay triviality, when we heard the commotion outside, and we rang for a servant to come and gaze out the window to identify its source.

“Two Coppers, milady, beggin’ your pardon, by which I mean the automata of the Metropolitan Police. They appear to be accompanying a naval officer heading to our front door.”

“Well, tell the officer to leave a card, and to take his monstrosities elsewhere.” Mother was most particular on these matters. Since my fortunate intervention in the flight of the Sacramento some days prior, we had been visited with regularity by most of society, and it was a fair assumption that the officers of law wished to interview me.

Mother, as was her right, acted as gatekeeper to these intrusions into our private existence. She had rebuffed a most insistent fellow with a kinetoscope who wished to make a moving picture of my likeness, and agents of at least two papers who had inquired after lines of comment. Others who failed to pass Mother’s strict guard included a Presbyterian who wished to pray with me, several members of society without title, and a man of questionable morality who – sporting a gammon colonial accent – enquired if I were willing to model my plight in a most objectionable state of dress. I believe Mother set the hounds on him, followed by the ever-loyal Sykes and his weathering staff.

Conversely, several did make it through Mother’s strict appraisal. This included a visit the Lord Boston; brunch with Duchess Teague; and several visits from Viscount Carlingsteed, who (with no thought or desire for scandal) requested to chaperone me in a turn around Hyde Park once my fame dispersed.

My thoughts lingered on these previous guests, who I confess were most admirable in my esteem, until I was interrupted by the maid’s return some minutes later.

“Excuse me, milady, but the gentleman downstairs is most insistent he speak with Lady Lydia. He says it is a matter of national import.” She curtseyed at that, and hurried meekly to mother to leave the gentleman’s card.

Mother eyed it with suspicion, then passed it back to the maid. “Very well, he may attend us. Though he shall leave his gastly contraptions outside. I shall not have a brass creature roaming freshly laid linoleum.”

“Yes, milady.” She headed off again, quiet flushed by my mother’s suggestion that she had permitted an automaton inside a private dwelling, though not willing to deny it. Mother had a most efficacious effect on the serving class.

Our visitor did not delay in attending the parlour. He was a bold young man of some thirty years, black hair slicked in modern fashion, with the clean-shaven visage of a nautical fellow. His uniform made him look most spendid, with the golden epaulettes and neat, anchor-stamped buttons of the Royal Navy. He entered with his cap tucked under his arm, his shoes, gleaming with polish, halting at the edges of the Persian rug.

Commander Kyle Dale, R. N., was a most brisk fellow of Scotch blood, at once both charming and forceful. He paid us the compliment of being blunt, and did not for a moment consider us weaker or wearisome because of our sex. Instead he politely requested to interview me alone, and proved so deliberate in his purpose and design that Mother actually relented (an astonishing feat in itself). He then interviewed me with regard to my inconvenience, but did so with such perspicacity that I felt as if I were confiding in him. Only once did his manners lack, when he exclaimed the tea was “d—-ed fine”, and at once apologised for his sailor’s tongue.

After discussion of the incident, Dale’s topics seamlessly moved on. He discussed my upbringing, and where I had gained my knowledge of the mechanical (he also ventured to entertain certain concepts of natural science, though theory is far less engaging than practical engineering). I explained my father’s fascination with the artificers, and my own natural inclination toward the machinist’s art.

It was, in the absence of Mother’s disapproval, a most liberating conversation, and one which the Commander manipulated most expertly. Indeed, it was only after our third cup, a full two hours later, that it suddenly occurred to me that he had not once stated the purpose of his visit. And, charmed though I was, I felt it only proper to enquire his interest in my case.

“You no doubt appreciate Her Majesty’s dirigibles are under the command of the Fleet Air Arm? And the Admiralty is based at Tower Hill, your destination. So, you see…” at this, the Commander trailed off. I watched with polite restraint as he selected his words. Then, with a sigh and shrug of his epaulettes, he relented his secrets to me.

“D’y’know,” he continued, “I can’t say I have the patience for obsfuscation. Not a boon in my line of work. Why am I interested in you, m’am? I shall tell you. I work for a branch of Naval Intelligence that is singular in its defence of the British Empire. You know of the customs of the hindoo, of the Japanese, of the African nations? Superstitious rot and the like? Well, madam, just because we consider it guff don’t mean the natives do. Quite the contrary. The Indian Mutiny sparked because some swami linked biting bullet cartridges with the end of the world, and that virtually drove John Company off the subcontinent.”

“I am familiar with these legends,” I replied, trying to be reserved in my commitment.

“Good. Well, that’s my business, m’am. I learn of these prophecies, stories and high tales, and nip ’em in the bud before they blossom to harm the Empire. If a swami says Queen Victoria is the Devil and tries to stoke up a rebellion, why we take action to see such problems are removed.”

“Is that not the role of a Witch Finger?” It was a remarkable revelation, but I was determined to probe for deeper explanation. After all, I had been educated, as had every child, of the celebrated Witch Finger’s unique role in society. The men and women of the Witch Finger, under sponsorship of the Church of England, held it as their solemn duty to enforce the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and crack down on any vagabond or charlatan that claimed to have powers of prophecy, wizardry or other irrational transmutation.

Dale shook his head.

“Not a bit of it, m’am. A Witch Finger is concerned with the act, we are concerned with the consequence. A Witch Finger cares about the supposed supernatural on our sovereign soil; we are concerned with threats foreign and domestic. And, despite capturing the public’s imagination, in his day of modern invention the Witch Fingers are a vanishing breed.

“Automata have made their roles difficult, you see. Should a Witch Finger smash a fortune-telling machine? Or clap in irons a futurist predicting the next great invention? Of course not. Although the Witch Fingers are popular in lore and the Penny Dreadfuls, in truth there are only four left in England, and only one in the capital. And, may I say it madam, that while Truelove – that’s the chap’s name – is a worthy sort, he’s entirely of the wrong breeding for a role in the Empire’s service.”

“He did not attend Oxford or Cambridge?”

“Quite.”

“And may I enquire why your role brings you here?”

“Simple enough, m’am. The dirigible was not faulty. It was sabotaged.”

I blanched. It was a most terrible suggestion that someone would contemplate such a murderous act, let alone carry it out. “Sabotaged?” I asked, repeating his words in, I confess, a moment of shock.

“Yes. Oh, not to kill you, m’am. Another passenger was the target. And if not for your timely intervention, the plot would have succeeded.”

It was an astounding claim, and I completely forgot propriety. “Who? The dear reverend? The Colonel? What rotter would do such a thing! And my second favourite petticoat! It was ruined! The scoundrel!”

“Indeed, m’am,” Dale said, taking another sip of tea. “My purpose here was, I confess, to determine whether you were involved. It is plain to me that you were not. And furthermore, it is plain that you have a certain skillset most useful to your country. Artificers are all to often lost to their creations; a woman of such skills and blessed with the independence to take on commissions as required would be a valuable asset. It therefore falls upon me to extend to you a warrant of service.”

This, I confess, was most improper. However, I admit a deep excitement was sparked within, and I felt the delightful giddiness of passions stirred.

“And what is that, sir?”

“Lady Lydia. I have resolved to recruit you in service of your country for a matter most pressing. Should you accept my proposition, I promise you only two things. First, that you shall be privy to work on some of the most miraculous devices of our age. And second, that you shall know whose sinister hand almost caused your demise. I urge you to accept, though I will not compel you. Some countries press gang their agents, or tickle their feet until submission. But I am an agent of Her Majesty, and I shall accept your decision with good grace.”

The Commander need not have been so concerned. It was not an offer I was inclined to refuse.

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VII. Gideon

Extract from Remembrances of a Gutter Press Hack by Gideon Pound, published Hardier-Walt, 1923

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Tea clipper-catamaran coming in to dock

The Patterson suicide played on my mind for five days straight. It was a neat little worm, always burrowing away at the back of my mind as I filed copy, to the point that it drove me to distraction.

The news that week had been dominated by the balloon farce. Some posh madam with a fine, double-barrelled name (not Welsh, thank heaven) had landed a dirigible in the East End, and every column inch was consumed with supposition about her actions. Everyone from the Times to the lllustrated News got involved, extolling her virtues or admonishing her for ridiculous faults; one leader, penned by some lofty editor who presumably only ever entered the real world to dine, even complained that a woman should have not been allowed to pilot a dirigible. Presumably he preferred the Sacramento‘s passengers (and assorted bystanders below) all to die in fiery conflagration than breach protocol. As I’ve said, there’s nothing society likes more than a scandal, even when there’s no scandal to be found.

Balloons did not interest me. Nor did the rest of the ‘news’, which consisted of the usual Northerners going on strike about their coal mines, the usual Royal Navy squadrons departing from Scapa Flow, and the usual white-whiskered gufftraps blathering about in parliament. And thus I found myself returning, again and again, to that platform at Fenchurch Street.

I pride myself having a nose for a story, and there was something queer wafting in the tale of Emily Patterson. According to the information I could garner (a little too easily, I felt), she was 24 years old and a governess by trade, and had recently returned from Madeira where she had been engaged in private capacity. All of this was perfectly proper for superficial inspection. But as you dug your nails in to the flesh of her story, a strange mask began to peel off Ms Patterson.

Her place of birth was listed as Rochester. Very well. But her school was given as ‘Lowood’. As any simple sleuth knows, Lowood is the school from Jane Eyre, whose heroine falls in love with Mr Rochester. If that were not a strange enough coincidence, Jane herself is a governess. The details seemed as though they had been conjured up at short notice, and the lowest hanging fruits in the mind had been harvested.

This was enough to make me wonder why Patterson would have been on the train; she had no registered abode in London, and besides trains from Rochester run to London Bridge, not Fenchurch Street. An examination of the timetables showed the train ran from Shoeburyness via Southend, and out through Pitsea, Vange and Horndon and so to Fenchurch. It so happened that these final three stations (through the bumpkin countryside and far from true civilisation) had short platforms, and thus no one would have ventured to the final carriage. Shoeburyness was a nothing station too, only used to alight holidaymakers, which suggested she had boarded at Southend.

Why would a governess have been at Southend? The ‘recent return from Madeira’ could have been a good reason; many steamers chose to anchor at the mouth of the Thames than venture deep up its blackened waters. Indeed, the entire nation’s tea supply relied on the clipper-catamarans from the Orient, which habitually docked at Southend or Gravesend. Yet I suspected Madeira was false, too; in Jane Eyre Rochester’s mad, attic-bound wife is from that tropical port. This forced me to travel there myself, and check the harbour records.

Here my hunch proved sound.  Only one ship had docked that day, and not from Madeira. The Fiery Cross had been collected by steam tug and brought to Southend docks at 9pm that eve. She was still in harbour, too, and a magnificent sight: a four-master tea clipper-catamaran, built in the latest design of smooth lines and soaring sails. Sail had surrendered to coal fire years before, but the clipper fleet were the apotheosis of an age, and their fine lines still beat the salt-caked smoke stacks of the heavy steamers given good weather. Fiery Cross had made the passage from Hong Kong to England in only 80 days, which was about as fast as any ship could muster.

The Cross proved the final nail in Ms Patterson, too. For I found the mate in a nearby sailor’s stew, a swarthy chap of calloused complexion, and slipped him a bob to talk of passengers. His response was clear.

The Cross had a passenger, yes, and she fit Ms Patterson’s description. And yes, come to think of it her name was Patterson, though she kept to her cabin much of the time.

“And she disembarked that night?”

“‘Course,” says the salt. “Her and the tea chests.”

“Tea chests?” The plural struck me. One chest for a travelling governess would be reasonable. But two was an extravagance of personal effects.

“That’s right. Two. Sent ’em to the Dog’s Face, where she took up board.”

“She did not go to the station?”

“Not that I know of squire.”

“And was there anything strange about her behaviour?”

“Nah, mate,” he said, taking out a pipe and beginning to suck on it, lifting a match to its bowl. “Though it was a night of strange things.”

“Such as?”

“As we came in to dock, there was a hoot. Like an owl, only bigger. More strained, like a throttling, hollow sound. She didn’t seem bothered by it, but I confess it sent a chill down my britches. It was a portent, so it was: an evil omen. And sure enough, later that night we get the horror, clear as a picture. It was the call of the banshee.”

“How so?”

“One of the dock hands vanished. One of the foreign workers, little yellow chap brought over by the tea magnates. Drowned no doubt, twisted up in the bow lines. Must have slipped and caught himself between ship and the dock while unloading the crates. Not a pleasant way to go, if you get my meaning; the Devil claims anyone who slips in such a gap, and all it takes it one wrong foot on the gangplank to end up there.”

“Is that common?” I baulked a little at the grisly discovery, and wondered if the Gazette‘s readers might revel in the dangers of longshore work. The mate shrugged and pulled on his pipe.

“Common enough not to be worthy of mention in a busy port. It was only the hoot that makes it memorable, chum. The banshee. It was callin’ the fellow to his doom. Aye, and when I hear it again, I’ll make sure I say a prayer to God and hope he’ll take a sinner yet.”

I returned on the first train to London, bamboozled. The Dog’s Face (yes, I did visit that dockside den) proved a dead end, for no woman had taken lodgings that night, and the trail of Emily Patterson vanished into the aether.

Still, the death of the dock worker convinced me I was on the right scent. A woman returns from China; a Chinaman dies in strange circumstances; the woman is found dead on a train that very night.

My nose smelled the fresh ink of column inches in this tale. And I knew the answer lay waiting for me in the Southwark Morgue.


VI. Mr Truelove

The Recollections of Rutter Skitch Truelove, Witch Finger

Only known image of Jennifer Bellows, drawn upon her arrest for prostitution 1882

Only known image of Jennifer Bellows, drawn upon her arrest for prostitution 1882

T’was a guttin’ hook what she gave me that night, down Duckett’s Passage under the gas lamp. Proper sharp it were too, like what you’d use for slicin’ under the gristle-belly of a pig to rake out the gizzards and fill the bags o’ mystery sausages what’s sold on Eastcheap.

Ah, Jenny Bellows was a proper strumpet, all pale skin and wild hair like an Irish minx. She was a bit o’ jam, an’ I was sweet on her an’ no mistake. The poppet knew it, too, for she flashed her ankles from under the crimson petticoat, and looked at me saucy as she passed the tool over.

“And what’s you askin’ for?” I said, taking the parcel from her grasp. It’d come wrapped in a stained cloth, but she’d shown me the blade before passin’ it over. It was curved right cruel, like the Sikh kirpans old Company men sold in pawn shops. The markings were wrong though. Symbols were etched on the blade in crude cuts, not the flowing lingo of the Punjab. The colour, too, was all wrong, for the blade held dark blue stain, almost midnight. I smelt slinkamalink on it, of the ritual kind.

“A bull an’ its yours.” She smiled at me. Still had most of her teeth, bless ‘er, which helped me loins stir a bit toward her price – not that’d I’d pay the best totty in London five shillings for a blade.

“Oh, shut your sauce-box, luv. Half a crown? What do you think you’ve got, the bleedin’ crown jewels?”

Her eyes lit up right fierce at that. “I gots something I know’s precious, Rutter, and I wants what’s fair.”

“Fair? Where’d you get it, hey?”

“That’s information, what is confidential and privileged.” She said each word with an affectation of grandeur, which felt right rum out of her over-painted lips.

I scratched a merciless itch botherin’ me scalp. “Big words for a ‘ditch girl born in a cunnywarren. Smells like you chanced on somethin’ out’a blind luck and fancy makin’ a bob for it.”

“Can smell of what you want, as far as I cares. I’ll call the price at a half-crown, if that’s more agreeable. Two and six.”

“Two shillings and you name the spot you filched it.”

“I never filched it! I ain’t never filched nothing.” She bristled, tryin’ to peacock her way to seem offended. “Two and a thrup’ny an’ it’s yours.”

I relented at that, and slipped the coins into her mitts. She counted em in her palms, testin’ each one to make sure it were proper. I wrapped the guttin’ knife tighter in its rag an’ slipped it under me overcoat. She flashed me a smile and a half-courtesy, and turned heel toward the Dog’s Head. It was easy enough to see where the thrup’ny would go.

“Not so sharp,” I said, grabbing her shoulder. She looked offended, but I held my grip firm. “You ain’t told me the spot, Jenny Bellows. Where’d you get it?”

The annoyance slipped off that painted face of hers, and she gave a smile.

“Saw it stuck fast in the mud, right under the new bridge at Blackfriars. Scooped it up from Father Thames ‘imself.”

I let her arm go, and watched her thighs shimmy as she made off down the passage. Blackfriars Bridge would be a bad bit o’ business an’ no mistake. For the only thing under the bridge was the entrance to the Fleet Sewer.


V. Monty

From Prosper or Perish in the Attempt: A Gentleman’s Journey to Music Hall Stardom, the collected letters of F. Montgomery Skaldon, Hardaker Press

The_Happy_Land_-_Illustrated_London_News,_March_22,_1873

Jack Dandies dancing to ‘Make It Rain’ by FM Skaldon

 

My Dearest Effie,

It is a truth universally acknowledged that those inclined to hatred wont to hate.

How else can I explain the slander to have reached your ears? I have seen the reports, and understand your misapportioned shame. Tales that I chase the dragon? That I take company with (and indeed extend my protection to) fallen women? That I posed for a portrait of decidedly French persuasion? Outrageous, and my solicitor has already issued writ.

Perhaps it shall help if I clarify the truth of this latest ‘scandal’. It began on my return from Saturday’s trip to Brighton, where I had taken the waters. I was travelling the Southern Turnpike with my usual cohort of friends, accompanied by some ladies of most respectable virtue, on a privately contracted omnibus.

Despite reports that I was ill-attired, I assure you that I appeared in a morning jacket, accessorised rather finely by my top hat, monocle and swordstick. Yes, my dear Effie, I know you wish I would not carry such a tool, but a gentleman is permitted a personal defence, and we at the height of the rivalry between the operatic schools of East and West London; one never knows when such a device shall be required.

Regardless, we were in high spirits, and decided to sing a rousing chorus of my latest operatic:

Make it rain, make it rain
Make it rain, make it rain
No one in our nation denies minted precipitation!
Make it rain, make it rain
Make it rain, make it rain
Do not detest the player, one must vilify the game!
Make it rain, make it rain, make it rain!

This very lyric proved my undoing. I was, at this late stage in the day, tired and emotional, and felt a pressing need to demonstrate my wealth from the top of the omnibus. We had approximately two hundred shillings which I began to throw with liberal abandon to passers-by, much to the delight of my fellow passengers.

Most pedestrians we passed accepted this offering gladly, and cheered me on in my endeavours. This noise attracted others, and soon men and women began to line our passage while urchins scurried along the pavement, scooping up any coins that fell in the gutters. My friends hooted and cooed, while I, resplendent in a fine purple velvet longcoat, pleated silk shirt and measured top hat, cast my wealth into the crowds.

Unfortunately at least three ladies, and perhaps one man (I suspect the thorough scamp to be of malingering and deceitful persuasion) were caught by my benefaction. I doubt their accounts of lacerations and severe bleeding, for being struck by a coin is hardly the most grievous of wounds, but it appears there were some minor injuries and at least one case of hysteria and syncope.

This news was invariably wired to Fleet Street, for I was met as I arrived home by a collection of journalists and photographers for the morning’s broadsheets and kinetoscopes, all questioning my display of altruism.

As you are no doubt aware, my dear sister, the hacks brought out the cleavers for me, and questions have been asked in Parliament about conduct, and indeed the tone portrayed in my body of work. They say I am a scalliwag, and that I should have remained a Killing Gentleman for the East India Company, rather than a humble musical hall composer.

I say balderdash! No establishment understands the music of its time, and I write operatics for the masses. Let the débutantes and Jack Dandies of London decide if my music has merit, not the Privy Council! I shall continue to write witty ditties, and the good fellows and ladies of London shall continue to embrace my beat!

They shall not silence me, dearest sister! Of this I am most certain!
I trust that you will believe the account I have provided, and this letter exonerates me from any defamation I have suffered in your eyes.

Sincerely yours,
Monty

ps/ Please offer a salutation to mother

 


IV. Telegram

Telegram sent to Commodore K. Dale, R.N, March 20th

SAFELY IN LONDON STOP ATTEMPT ON LIFE MADE STOP TRANSPORT SABOTAGED STOP WILL CONTACT FOR FURTHER STOP REMOVE BODY FROM MORGUE STOP BACKGROUND CHECK LYDIA PARKER WRIGHT STOP

E


III. Dick

Conversation overheard at the Eight Bells Tavern, Shoreditch, the night of March 20th

Amazing escape from balloon peril

Amazing rescue: mid-air escape

“It were bloody amazing, that’s what it were!”

“Would have been better if she fell. Nothing funnier than a posh tart fallin’.”

“Nothin’ better than a tart’s knickers fallin’, you mean? Ain’t that right Bess?”

“Oi! Get your paws off me hose, you filthy taff-licker! You don’t get a grope ’til you cough up a groat. And you, John Chambers, what kind of a man wants to see someone fall to their death?”

“I saw a steeplejack fall off a chimney once…”

“Nobody cares, Boggs. They wants to hear about this Lady Posh-Bint. Go back to your cup.”

“Me cup’s dry. Now, as I were saying. It were in Macclesfield, famed for its tram-lines. This jack, he were climbing…”

“Oh shut yer chattergob, or I’ll batty-fang you back North of Watford Gap! Landlord, get this grub-scrubber a pint to keep ‘im schtum, will you? Now go on, Dick. What happened with this girl?”

“Right, so I were heading down Cable Street with the slop cart, stinking up the show as usual, when I hear this cry, see? Sort of a high-strung shriek.”

“Like a ‘Eeeeeh!’? Or a ‘Heeeewwwww!’?”

“An ‘Uuuuuuuuuuk!’, if you must know, Bess. No more sound effects, if you will, because you’re interruptin’ my tale. Now, I’m used to cries around the slop cart, ain’t I? Because the roads ain’t paved proper yet, and every so often a bit of the sump spills out and some half-rats chum stumbles past and gets covered in week-old shit. So, at first, I don’t pay any notice of the din. But then I notice people stoppin’ and starin’, and all pointing up in the sky. So I tell the mare to halt, and take a look-see.”

“What did you see?”

“Bleedin’ ‘ell woman, I’m coming to that. So I look up, and at first I don’t see nothin’, cause’ it’s a hot day and London’s coated in the usual smoggy fug, right? Then, through the clouds, I make out this flying contraption. One of those great balloons it was, like what the Prussians used to bomb Paris during their war.”

“A dirigibibul.”

“Dirigible, you illiterate shafter. Go on, Dick.”

“Yeah, so it was a dirigible. Now they come in two a penny down by Limehouse reach, because they follow the Thames toward the Tower Hill jetty so they can anchor. But this one was different, ‘cause it was in trouble an’ no mistake. The thing was swingin’ round in a spiral, the balloon looked like Saggy Nell’s tits, and the under-basket with its passengers was all squwiffy. Flames was comin’ out of it from somewhere, and this thick black smoke was belchin’ out of it. Ropes was hanging wild off the side, and at the end of one of these, hands gripped on to the cable for dear life, was this lady, all petticoats and corsets. Her legs were kickin’ furiously, and as I watched she finally managed to look her ankle around the coil and steady herself, like.”

“Could see her ankles? I didn’t know this were a saucy tale.”

“Never mind her ankles. Could you see up her skirt?”

“Hush, you two! Peril like that ain’t the time for perversions, and she weren’t so much interested in dignity as survival. By now everyone below was watchin’ the drama unfold. The balloon was still spinnin’, stuck as it was always turnin’ left, and it had begun to create this black twist of vapour in the sky that came lower with every pass. We could see it was goin’ to slap down on us, and those what was in the balloon were all going to end up strawberry jam unless the ship righted itself sharpish.”

“Well, go on, Dick! Did you run for it, or did you stay and watch?”

“Who’s tellin’ this story? I was pausin’ for effect, you thick bugger. Now, the gents on the craft, a couple of ‘em looked ready to meet the maker; I swear, one of ’em was God botherin’ his way to the Almighty’s good books, with another two watchin’ on in a kind of stupor. But then there were this squat chap. He were hangin’ off the side, hands thrust out toward the woman on the cable. And she, believe it or not, had begun to climb up ‘im! She moved proper nimble too, like that monkey the Gazette were talkin’ about, the one what stole the nipper? In seconds the lass had hauled herself up the rope, and with the assist of that gent she was back in the basket with the rest of the fools.”

“And?”

“And if you want to hear the rest of it, get me a pint. This story tellin’ lark’s thirsty work… ah, much obliged, sir! Now, were was I? Oh yeah, they’re was all about to die. Well not if this little madam has anythin’ to say about it, they wasn’t. The craft is, by now, shakin’ and rattlin’ and bouncin’ all about, but she grips the hand rail, and drags her way straight at that fire, no hesitation. No idea what she does, but an instant later there’s this sudden ‘whoooosh!’ of spray and steam and the craft rights itself in an instant. The balloon’s still gone and they’re still crashin’, but she don’t seem bothered. She just grips on to the ship’s wheel, and gives it a firm tug. ‘Hold fast, gentlemen!’ cries she, barely fifty feet above us now, and she twists the wheel right round. Then the balloon, and the basket, and every soul on board, vanishes from sight behind the Wilton’s Music Hall.”

“So? What did you do?”

“What d’yer’think? I climbed off the slop cart and ran down Fletcher street to see what’s what. I weren’t the only one, neither. The airship came down right in the middle of Swedenborg Gardens, and by the time I got there a whole crowd had surrounded the wreck. Right ragged it was, with the canvas tarp coverin’ the whole show like a tent.

“Did they make it?”

“At first it were hard to tell, what with the canvas blanketin’ ’em ‘n’ all. Nobody seemed to be movin’ rapid, but eventually some of the more stalwart lads grasped the balloon’s skin and cut their way through. There was silence, me buckos, like a collective intake of breath. Then a soot-stained hand emerged, the woman climbed free, and the whole gathering erupted in cheers and huzzahs. One by one the passengers, scrambled free, a little dazed and with a few cuts and bruises but nothin’ serious. She’d saved the whole bleedin’ lot of ‘em.”

“Blimey.”

“Blimey’s right, squire. And get this: she didn’t seem fazed by the experience, neither. People rush to congratulate her, but she ignores ’em all and gets out this pocket mirror. She flips it open, looks disapprovingly at the soot on her face, and proceeds to powder ‘er bleedin’ nose! Her hair’s a mess, her dress is in tatters, and she’s more concerned with the grime!”

“Sounds like my kind of girl.”

“Aye? Well, finished attending to herself, she sighs and turns to this fat gent who she’d just saved. ‘Captain Da Silva,’ she says, lookin’ down her nose at ‘im, ‘I have been most inconvenienced by the deficiencies of your craft. One cannot overstate the importance of airship maintenance, or indeed knowledge of its operation, and you have been most neglectful.’”

“She never!”

“She bleedin’ did. Then she turns to the little fella what helped her up from the cable. ‘Sykes,’ says she, ‘gather my belongings. Do not recompense Captain Da Silva. I am not satisfied by his conduct or his vessel, and believe it is only fitting he forfeits payment. Colonel, Reverend, I bid you both a good day.’”

“Crikey!”

“Then she’s away, the crowds partin’ for her as she walks off, tellin’ her little mate to collar a Hansom cab.”

“Walks off? Just like that?”

“Yeah. But here’s the kick. The last thing I hear her say as she swans off? ‘Mother will be most put out at the state of my attire. I have got oil stains quite all over my person.’”

“Toffs. They live in another world, don’t they?”


II. Lydia

The Wrong Way To Build A Bridge, or The Memoirs of Lady Lydia Parker-Wright, artificer and explorer

Vol IV. March 20th

Credit: Wellcome Library

The Sacramento (from Southend to Tower Hill)

We departed S_____ on what appeared to be a most expeditious form of transportation. Sykes had engaged a dirigible line to traverse the South Essex countryside, as the direct line to Fenchurch Street was closed. She was named Sacramento, and her captain was a stout Portuguese named Da Silva, whose affected manner of English was as charming as his attentions proved vexing. Twice he slipped while assisting my boarding, and I was forced to take a sharp restitutionary measure with my knee to ensure such accidents were not repeated.

The dirigible had been a last minute decision that Sykes had made on his own initiative. While it was impertinent of him to doubt the abilities of the Essex Railway Company to produce an efficacious mode of alternate transportation to London, I appreciated his forethought; the weather was exceedingly clement and an omnibus would have been hot and crowded. I have my father’s constitution for such affairs, and an Englishwoman must remember that perspiration, as with all bodily functions, remains the sole preserve of the male.

Sykes stayed near the brazier that operated the contraption, as per his station. I had, of course, instructed Sykes to pack my brass goggles and calibrators in the hand luggage, and so did not peruse the mechanism or take more than a cursory professional interest in its operation. I also refrained from any whoops of delight as we rose steadily in the air, although I confess the majesty of soaring among the clouds was a joyful experience.

Above Hornchurch I took tea with my fellow passengers, the Reverend Jacobs and Colonel Blumstead, who had both chosen our form of travel for novelty. Jacobs was hoping to visit his mother in Pimlico before he departed Britain to bring the word of our Lord to the natives of Siam. The Colonel refrained from discussing the purpose of his travel, and at the time I made the mistake of thinking little of his oversight.

Our conversation was, alas, most tiresome. I had barely taken a bite from the cucumber squares on offer when the Colonel engaged the topic of pacifying certain regions of the country, insisting Her Majesty’s government to be comprised of “weak-willed cowards” under the influence of “costermongers, plebeians and their assorted foreign notions”.

Listening dutifully to a rather one-sided discussion, it soon became apparent the Colonel had several quaint and misguided beliefs on the operation of Armstrong guns, and was confident they would have proven great benefit in our recent wars in the Punjab. He proved most disagreeable when I endeavoured to venture certain logistical considerations regarding heavy ordinance he had failed to contemplate, and he stated, rather frankly, that a woman should not have ideas above her station.

“Indeed,” I replied. “And a colonel should not entertain ideas of government policy.”

“Madam,” he retorted, “war is the merely the continuation of politics by other means.”

“You have read Von Clausewitz, then, Colonel? How marvellous. I had considered such an author outside of your remit, given that he was a Prussian gentleman and full of ‘assorted foreign notions’.”

This response made my dining companion rather dyspeptic, and I retired to the rear, allowing the men to benefit from brandy and cigars. From here I could see the expanse of the Metropolis below, and enjoy our gentle flight above the smokestacks and tenements that had begun to creep beyond the Bow Road. We were coming in to land when I sighted a small group of children playing cricket, and felt inclined to lean over the railing to see if the lower classes had mastered a gentleman’s game. They were not wearing top hats (one supposes they could not afford them), nor pads, but even as we soared some three hundred feet above I could see the bowler had good action, and the basic principles of a strong silly mid-off field had been ingrained in them.

My interest in the game, however, was interrupted by a most inconvenient eruption. The brazier I earlier neglected to examine had developed a fault, and sent the Sacramento reeling to the side with considerable force and a terrible, rattling screech. Holding firm to the railing, I twisted to see if Captain Da Silva would make the remedial correction required (an emergency vent in the secondary pressure regulator while altering the flow to correct our ballast) and halt the list to port. However, the man seemed at a loss to repair his command (one can only speculate how he became a captain at all, a child would have been more competent), and I was obliged to instruct him in its repair.

Unfortunately, this course of action was thwarted before it began. For it was at that moment the much celebrated rogue cable, loosed by the blast, struck me on hard on the shoulder and swept me off the dirigible’s platform.

I confess, dear reader, I began the perilous fall toward the streets below with a most unbecoming scream…