Tag Archives: Steampunk

XV. Nell

Classified private note, attached to official Admiralty Report XC-V regarding the loss of HMS Warspite

 A Taipang blood brooch

As you know, sir, sometimes in our line of work – that being subterfuge and dancing with all manner of rogue – one must think on their feet. The moment the noise resonated above, the Chinaman moved with startling alacrity, a great noise bellowing from his back. It confirmed my suspicions that the Taipangs had attempted some form of interface with…

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, and should refer you to my reports on the Chinese interior. We live in an age of invention and wonder, and in doing so we have uncovered mysteries we never thought possible. Lord Kelvin’s assertions are astonishing, as are the moves of Dr Lister and Mr Swan. But of all the devices singular to the world, there are few things so miraculous as the blood wheel.

The Taipang believe blood to be sacred. It is the river of the body, and while they acknowledge the self-evident truths of circulation (as discovered by an Englishman several hundred years ago), they believe this can be altered by the divine. Simply put, they believe their bowels can turn blue if they are blessed by an angel. This is folly, for I have sliced open many a gizzard in my time, and am yet to discover a blue one, but the cult is widespread enough to encourage men, women and, though I find it pitiable, children to attempt to alter their circulation. The worshippers insert a brooch to their back, which creates a bypass between veins. This flow of blood in turn spins a water wheel, painted to mimic gold, which they are told functions much like a prayer wheel of ancient Tibet. The process is, alas, far more nefarious.

I know you grasp kinetics, but your superiors may not. Simply put this wheel acts as a dynamo, which charges and sparks, allowing a great injection of energy when the body’s stresses and distempers reach critical mass. Such was the action I saw on the Chinaman, and thus I knew with no small certantiy what lay behind the door through the opium den.

Sir, I knew then what this operation was about. I told you I believed the Taipangs were up to rum in the heart of the Smoke, and here was their base, where they were inserting converts with little devices. The elderly attendant gone, I dashed out, toward the door, all pretence of stupor vanished from my body. Skaldon looked stunned by this can called out, but I paid him no heed, throwing my bonnet aside as I rushed forth and swung open the door.

It was precisely as I imagined. A circular chamber, with a grate in the corner that no doubt led to some sewage outlet, where blood and wasted flesh could be discarded unseen. Tools, gleaming in the gaslight, showing vicious edges of sterile steel. Some were tainted blue, dyed I suspect with Prussian or the like, so as to give the impression of the Taipang blue bowels. And, at the centre of it, a desk with mounds of papers, all with the vermillion seal.

Sir, you may not be familiar with Chinese seals. Let me simply say that only two men in China use the vermillion, to the point that the very word means their authority. The first is the rightful Emperor of China, the ghastly fellow who tormented Elgin in the Opium Wars. The second is the Taipang Heavenly Emperor himself. I made motion to the papers in an instant… and I regret it cost me caution.

I failed to check the corner of the room, sir, and let that blind spot remain in my vision. It was this folly that led to my wound, for in a second I had been struck by a mighty blow, and I knew at once another agent of the Taipangs, strength augmented by their queer machinations, was upon me.

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XIV. Mr Truelove

The Recollections of Rutter Skitch Truelove, Witch Finger

Patrons visit the Bishop's Arms

Patrons visit the Bishop’s Arms

Proselytisin’ ain’t much of my style, but it serves its turn when you’re in the gristle and garber of a stew. So I cried out me profession, and a few choice words o’ the vernacular, if you get my meaning, when the door caved. I stepped in to that doxy-hole palace snortin’ the Lord’s justice, and lifted my bobbyknocker to me shoulder so my meaning would be clear.

“Witch finger, you sinnin’ bastards,” I recall barking, summonin’ up a dollop of spit with the words. The whole room burst into activity then, half-clad cads and shaunty-sister girls scramblin’ out of my path like I were Moses himself. The truth be told, Rutter Skitch Truelove is not a pious man, but my office is bestowed by the clergy, and a little holy water serves to quench any tempers. That’s as why I met no resistance on that first floor, only a rush of people tryin’ to make clear of the doors.

The barman looked at me. He was penned in, stock fast behind his wooden run, so couldn’t scarper like the rest of the serving staff. I gave him a smile, and rapped the bar with my bobbyknocker.

“Where’s the pagans, ay?”

The man looked at me with a queer stare. Half-glassed eyes, as if he were assaying me, determining size and temperament.

“I don’t know what you mean, sir.” It was a placid response, now I think on it; too quiet, and all the queerer for it.

“I mean the knife. I mean the witchcraft under your roof. An’ you best me waggin’ your tongue with both alacrity and veracity, ’cause I ain’t in a mind to argue.”

He shook his head, and dropped his hands to the bar, knuckles blisterin’ white from the pressure. “I can’t,” he said.

“Oh, I think you’ll find you can.”

He drew breath. A judderin’ sort of suction from his lung, like a reverse hiccup. Sweat dripped on his brow.

“I…can’t.”

“Tell me, or it will be the worse for you.” True enough, though you don’t stay on the side of law and order for long if you sent every resistin’ barkeep to Tyburn. He was goin’ to get a rappin’, but no more. Of course, I didn’t say as much.

He swallowed. “Upstairs. Go upstairs.”

I can be most persuasive when give opportunity. But there was something queer about the way he said it. When you stick your neck into the chopper, or grind your way through the detritus of a Whitechapel slumyard, you get a sense of when danger lurks. There weren’t danger up those steps, but I knew there weren’t nothing of use, neither. I smiled, scooped up the cudgel in my hand… and brought it crashin’ down on those dainty digets.

It was a cruel blow ‘n’ no mistake; I’d delivered it hard and true enough to crush a few bones to fine powder. Not mortal in itself, though dicin’ with the Devil when it came to settin’ it right and preventin’ the sweats. He should have screamed in agony, should have cursed me in a whimperin’, pleading cry. But the barkeep did neither. He just looked at me, his face turning pallid.

Then he began to sob. Quietly, pitably. When you strike a man, he howls in pain, but it’s a throttlin’, primal yell, like the roar of a beast. This was a gurgling whimper, a noise of utter self-pity. He looked at the stairwell, eyes transfixed on the downward passage.

“Down there,” he finally said. And, at the moment he did so, his eyes widened in a sudden flash. It was as if he had suffered a jolt of electricity, somehow both surprising and expected.

“You’ve killed me,” says he. Then he keeled over, face rubbing against the bar, and slipped into death.

I admit, I hadn’t been expectin’ that. And nor had I expected the gunshot that followed seconds later.


XIII. Nell

Classified private note, attached to official Admiralty Report XC-V regarding the loss of HMS Warspite

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Feet tickling. A most ungentlemanly practice.

I don’t like robots. Automata. Mechanised palanquins. Coppers. Even those wheezing, puffing, billowing little teapot things you stick on the table to amuse and delight small children. Mankind was, in my estimation, better off before we discovered that a few drops of water heated to point of molecular weakness can cause a dynamo to turn, a piston to raise or a whistle to toot. I am no machine-breaker; I just long for a day when a good rifled bullet was suffice to stop a man. Had that been the case, many a life would have been saved that night in the alleys of Holborn.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, or too maudlin for my task, which is simply to relay the facts as they present themselves. But I feel I must raise this caveat: steam has its benefits and we have made an empire on its bounty, but our enemies use it too, in ways far more diabolical. There are unethical swine in the world, as I had discovered in the China station. It’s why I brought you that monstrous creation, half-automaton and half mystery, a mummified corpse clad in brass armour. I appreciate that storing it in a tea chest was far from ideal, but I had hoped that your masters would at least have listened with such evidence presented to them. I know you did your best to persuade them, especially after the bother at Southend.

It was their stubborn insistence that nothing was amiss that made me go again so soon. You know that. I could not trust another with my mission, especially with the threat so close to home; Her Majesty’s Government had a dagger pressed silently to its neck, so close it couldn’t see the blade. That’s why I volunteered.

The first problem was gaining entry. Any newcomers were spotted out pretty quickly and weighed up for the possibility of being a cuckoo in the nest. I can play any bricky church-bell lass you want, but the Taipangs do not have our falling of looking only at gender, and they’d wonder why a stranger had turned up for nanty-narking on the fly. I needed an entrance, and I chose Mr Franklin Montgomery Skaldon, Esq. He’d made the sheets enough to be known to them, and it wasn’t hard to ensnare my guide to the party. A red-haired wig, an over-exposure of face paint and my best Mile End accent was all it took, along with a few accidental brushes and suggestions beyond propriety. He was an idiot, especially in what occurred later, and kept calling me ‘Charlie’ out of misplaced affection. Still, he did have some wit about him when it came to it. I remember him telling me how his mother had wished him to be a parson, or if not a parson a physician or solicitor. “She must’ve been right disappointed, then,” I replied, forcing another drink in the oaf. But then he turned, and offered up a rakish little smirk. “Hardly, madam,” he replied. “Mothers never are”.

The bar was your typical slipshod gin Palace; mirrored liquor cabinets and warm beer on tap, with sawdust on the floor and the pervasive scent of pipe smoke wafting from the tables filled with revellers. I often wonder how Hogarth would capture today’s London, and whether it he would view it as alien to his own time, or a kindred spirit of wanton depravity. Twice passersby slipped their digits where they were unwelcome, and twice I dislocated an invasive finger to discourage the practice. Skaldon, for his part, did not attempt to force his affections. He is a buffoon, Kyle, but not an atrocious one. I kept pressing him, and eventually convinced him to make for the stairs. Two flights greeted us: up, into a space above that seemed stark and barren, or down, into the seedy realm of vice and hubris. It flight like Jacob’s Ladder, though I confess I doubt we would have found the Sons of Temperance holding a rally on the first floor; indeed, I suspect it no doubt housed chambers where the wealthy and sordid could indulge their more carnal whims, such as foot-tickling or simultaneous vibrations with multiple partners.

At any rate our destiny was downstairs, and thus we took the darker passage. Here we faced a small door, crooked in nature and with a creaking hinge; it was far too small for the corridor, and seemed to have been hastily erected. I continued my overzealous affectations, and pressed “Deargh Montee” to attain entry. Skaldon rapped on the door.

“I say,” he said. Quite why the workshy classes affect that phrase I shall never know – say, as opposed to what, perchance?

The door opened, and a wizened face looked out. A Chinese man, with whisping grey beard and teeth that marked his internal corruption. “What you want?”

“Pipes, dear boy. I have a guinea.”

“Guinea no good, no pipe here.”

“A sovereign, then. And two clean pipes.”

This seemed to afford us entry. The man shuffled aside, and Monty strode forward into a den of pillowed dreams and heavy air. The room was red, covered in stained cloth of a thick, violent crimson, with a low light and thick, intoxicating mist. My cheeks fell numb as we stumbled through, though I continued to laugh and giggle like a fool, hooked to Skaldon’s arm. He guided us to a bed on the corner; a stained mattress dressed with feather pillows and a loose bolt of silk. The old man bid us sit, then procured the pipes and set us down.

Of course I never entertained the notion of taking a puff of that dreadful narcotic; I was too busy scanning the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the old man draw the bead of opium latex onto a needle, and slowly roast it on a single, willowing flame in the centre of the room. His back turned, I could see a doorway at the far end of the opium den, on the opposite wall to the stairwell’s passage. This would be the Taipang room, I wagered. The most dangerous room in any lair is always the one deepest in the complex, and an opium den was the perfect illicit cover. All I had to do was wait until Skaldon drew on his pipe and drifted to the realm of the dragon. Then I could skulk across the room, past the old man, and burst in to the true horrors lurking at the heart of our capital.

The old man turned, and dropped the latex ball into our pipes, twisting his needle as one drops honey into tea. He gave a smile, and Skaldon and I both bent toward our pipes; he to draw deep, and I to feign intoxication.

The tubes never reached our lips. For at that moment a cry went up in the Arms, and clouds of dust sputtered from the floor beams above our heads. The old man turned and hissed at the sound, staring up as if his gaze could penetrate the wood. And, booming in sonorous echo from the Gin Palace above, we heard the proclamation.

“Witch finger! None of you sinnin’ bastards move.”


XI. Gideon

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

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Illustration believed to show Cmdr Kyle Dale, R.N. at recreation

Few things give me gooseflesh. I am blessed by a most excellent constitution not prone to flights of whimsy, and my occupation has inoculated me at even the most lurid of penny dreadfuls. Blood is just rusty rouge, and as for the moaning winds of Gothic horror, I’m more chilled by the thought of dying of consumption than a creature of the night breaking through my window.

And yet what I saw in the morgue that night still haunts me, for it came from ripe from the world of the fantastic. I would see many strange things in the days ahead, of man and beast and somewhere in between, but that first creation opened my mind to a sea of possibility I had not countenanced.

The Southwark Morgue was an inconspicuous little building, with plain red-brick façade and a few steps leading up to a freshly painted red door. There were no crackles of lightning above it, nor particularly looming shadows. In fact the only thing in the air that night was the pervasive whiff of yeast, as the strange pipes and tanks of the Goggler Brewery sat directly behind this modest home of for suspicious corpses.

Entry was simple enough. A few coppers spilled into the hands of the attendant, and a known quantity had free reign to peruse even the most macabre cases (if you weren’t known, you’d be suspected of having undesirable urges and get a sound beating). As a journalist I had visited several times before, and indeed had used some of the more infamous corpses on display to inform my copy. The main morgue was, I knew, in the basement, and was by all regards furnished with the latest technologies for the practising physician. The mortuary slab above a grate, allowing blood to flow across the tiles and down into the sewers; the lighting was electric and therefore less prone to the mysterious shadows of gas; and a sink with hot water, soap and even oil of geranium to disinfect the tools used to hack up the departed. I made my way there quickly, and within moments had set my eyes on the prize.

There were three bodies stretched out in the mortuary that eve, all covered in clean white cotton sheets to preserve modesty, personal affects stored neatly to one side. The coroner had presumably gone for the day, and so I had ample time to study the stiffs as I chose. The first was (I could tell from the blood stains on the cloth) a common stabbing, the second (from the dip of cloth where there should have been skull) presumably a gunshot wound to the head. That meant unlucky victim number three was our Miss Patterson. As I edged closer the queer pong I’d first sensed at Fenchurch Street filled the air, and I knew at once I was correct.

That’s when I noticed it. The hideous object that shook my world to its foundations.

Emily Patterson’s head sat in a weighing scale. Or, more precisely, what should have been her head. For someone had skinned that creature, so that only her flesh was present, slumped in a pile like a deflated balloon. The appearances were there – that same, impossible chin and ivory complection – but there was nought but air where once there had been skin and bone. I staggered with fright, and whipped off the covers of her corpse, desperate to confirm I was misled.

The corpse of a Chinese man stared back at me. Around his neck was the same ivory skintone, but from the throat upward he was masculine, with a whisp-thin beard and those remarkable doll’s eyes I had seen at the station. I reached down to the throat and touched the cold, clammy skin of the dead, my finger slipping and confirming my suspicions.

Grease-paint.

I came to the scales, the spectres of fear fleeing in front of my new knowledge. This was not Emily Patterson’s head, but simply theatrical rubbers and a wig. Upon closer inspection, it was not even that remarkable, much like a parlour mystery once you know the trick. Such a thing was of magnificent manufacture,but it was simply a jawline, and a false nose, and then a well-fit hairpiece. One could easily imagine how such simple pieces, like a puzzle, could slip over another’s features and utterly transform them with the aid of theatrical paint. And, once done, the illusion would be complete. This may not have been the true likeness of Emily Patterson, but as I was convinced Emily Patterson did not exist, that hardly mattered at all.

“Needs must, y’see.” The voice echoed around the chamber, causing me to spin in surprise. A young man stood in the doorway, a cocksure grin on his face. He wore the stylings of a naval officer, and had a charge-pistol all crackling with electricity and ready to fire.

“Excuse me?” I exclaimed, somehow succeeding in not evacuating my bowels from the fright of this sudden alarm.

“Needs must. Oh, hand’s up, there’s a good fellow? Thank you, much obliged.”

“You can’t do this, I’m a member of the press!” It was a weak protest, though a press card has been known to send a shiver up even the most callous of hounds.

“And I am sure your readers would lament if I had to use this, hmm? Now, step away from the item, if you so please.”

“What is this?” I demanded.

“National security. You see, your persistence has resulted in your discovery of certain things Her Majesty’s government is at labour to keep quiet. That mask – quite ingenious, isn’t it? – is but one of many points we’d rather not telegraph to the opposition.”

“Would another be that there was no Emily Patterson?”

The officer smiled. “And why would you say that?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I was ranting at this point, I confess. “That someone invented her history from the pages of Jane Eyre? That a Chinese worker – this one, I suspect – vanished from Southend the very night of her supposed death? That this Chinese worker was hanged up wearing a mask and her clothes to convince someone that she’d committed suicide? Oh, I’ve figured it all out. And I’ll find out what was in those tea chests, too.”

The officer lowered his pistol, and gave a slight clap. “Close. Though, not quiet on the button. Y’see, Mr Pound – may I call you Gideon?”

“If you must.” I dared not ask how the fellow knew my name. It’s a paradox of modern times that one craves recognition right to the point one achieves it; after that, all you wish is stark, boring anonymity.

“Thank you, Gideon. Now, the security of our nation often applies to small things. This is not a principle your class understands, but as your version of this mystery would be far more harmful than the truth, and as I have no real interest in shooting you dead, I suppose I’d better explain.” He took a seat on a vacant mortuary slab at that, and took snuff.

“I suppose you’d better.”

“Quite. In actuality I suppose I should keep my lips closed tight, but if I have any failings as a spymaster, it is that I find it impossible to keep secrets.”

A grave fault for his line of work, I grant you, but I wasn’t going to interrupt to tell him so.

“My interest,” he continued after a sneezing fit, “is to know the arcane mysteries of other cultures. This allows us to identify prophecies and beliefs that could harm the Empire. Do African tribes have a prophecy that men with sticks of fire shall arrive on iron creatures belching smoke? If so, we should consider if sending soldiers by rail would be beneficial or harmful to our position. And, of all the cultures causing us problems at the moment, the Taipangs are the most troublesome.”

“Taipangs?”

“The Kingdom of Heavenly Peace. A Chinese rebellion that’s swept up half the country into civil war. Several million fanatics who live and breath a twisted version of Christianity, where they are ruled by Jesus Christ’s brother and have blue bowels.”

“What?”

“Precisely, it’s all utter rot. It is rot, however, that threatens to spread to the fine oak that forms Her Majesty’s empire. My agent  was returning from Hong Kong with some rather vital items. When she arrived at Southend, she was attacked by this chap. She dispatched him, but decided for expediency that it was best to feign his attempt had been successful. Now, my agent’s gift is mummery, disguises and the like. She happened to have supplies available, and so promptly dressed up her assassin and sent him off, apparently mission accomplished.”

So now that mystery was solved. The strange smell, the body that was clearly dead before it had been hanged, the contents of those tea chests.

“Then she faked someone falling into the harbour, to explain the coolie’s disappearance, and affected another guise to lodge at the Dog’s Face. I presume a man, for no woman signed in, and it would shake suspicions of her survival.”

“You presume correctly. Indeed, Gideon, you presume a singular amount for a man who has not graced the halls of a university.”

Typical of the upper-class bumblers that ran the Empire, I thought. To assume a man could not read, or could not surmise, simply because he had the fault of being born to parents in somewhere unaccustomed to wealth and favour.

“The last time I checked, Jane Eyre is available in most public libraries, and not just the hallowed cloisters of academia.”

“Ah, yes. That was my mistake. An invented Miss Patterson requires a background, and I hastily cobbled it together. I had much to do in a short time, and the little details came all too readily. Rather than simply concoct a story, I had to convince the police and coroner not to investigate this corpse too intently. My agent was attacked again – this fellow must have had an accomplice – for they sabotaged the dirigible she was riding in. You’ll have read about that in your own sheet, I suppose? If it had not been for the fortunate interventions of a lady travelling with my agent, the attempt would have succeeded.”

“And where is the agent now?”

“Busy doing her job, and you need know little more. As for my role, I am here collect and dispose of the tell-tale body, a task I’ll oblige you to help me with in a moment’s time.”

“And why would I do that?”

The man laughed, gun still in hand. “Gideon, my dear fellow. I shall not appeal to your sense of patriotic duty, for I doubt you have one. Nor shall I appeal to your sense of honour, for you have walked among thieves too long. Instead, I appeal to your curiosity. For I know what drives a journalist to work for such a sordid publication as yours. It is not money, fame or even a sense of morality. It is that you are addicted to telling stories.

“I imagine a good story is a tot of the headiest wine to you, something you cannot refuse to imbibe. You have to know all the dirty secrets so that you can tell all the dirty tales to your friends in the public houses. And that, Gideon, is a trait that has nurtured in you a talent I can use. You are an excellent solver of mysteries.”

I laughed at that final, outrageous remark. Here, in a mortuary, standing over the body of a crossdressed Chinese assassin, I was being offered the Queen’s shilling by a exposition-obsessed spymaster wielding an electric firearm.

“I’m quite serious, Gideon. You would be an asset to the foreign service.”

“And if I decline?”

The man smiled. “I said I had no inclination to shoot you dead. I did not say I would hesitate if necessary.”

Put like that, how does one refuse?


X. Mr Truelove

The Recollections of Rutter Skitch Truelove, Witch Finger

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Holborn and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Ely Court is to the extreme right.

You may think from my appearance I’d be daft enough to go traipsin’ through a bleedin’ sewer, but Rutter Skitch Truelove ain’t fool enough to risk the miasma. The grime on me hat’s from hard graft, not fool’s errands down the filth-pipes o’ the Smoke. So when Jenny Bellows tells me ‘er knife comes out new a sewer floe, the first task that comes to mind is to grab out the maps and trace its route.

Now, I’m goin’ to assume you ain’t recently had a ganders at a map of London. People think the Thames flows west to east, and true enough it do, but central London is a bend, like a lead pipe snapped in twain. Blackfriars Bridge is the centre of that bend, and the Fleet river, an underground stream turned into a sewer, runs almost directly South into it. The end result of this spot o’geography is that everything from the Parish of St Giles-in-the-fields to St Paul’s and Ludgate Hill runs into the sewer, and the knife could have come from any of the thousand buildin’s on that route.

That bleedin’ obvious statement ain’t worthy of a Witch Finger, though, so I applied some rationalisation to the problem. First off, London back then were a den o’ shitbrooks, by which I mean only a handful of establishments had a flushin’ bog. So, takin’ out me ink and quill, I marked where I knew someone could pop a turd into the sewer.

This was still a fair old trudge. So next I pondered the hook itself, which weren’t no cutpurse’s stabber from Europe. More like that not it was tied in with some mischief from further afield So I used me knowledge of the doxie-holes o’London to plan out where you’d get such foreign fare. Most boltholes like that are further down the river (Rotherhithe and Limehouse way), not shovin’ up against the respectable buildin’s of the Inns of Court or Paternoster Square.

The end result was that I could think of only one location that dagger could have come from. Only one blemish, one blight, on the face of Holborn. It was the establishment of ill repute that called itself, flauntin’ its blasphemy with pride, The Bishop’s Arms.

Oh, it sounds pure, but the Arms was a den of vice and villainy the like of which even the Pre-Raphaelites avoided. A cunnywarren upstairs, a needle’n’pin haunt full of natty-narking whooperups on the ground level, and in the cellars an opium den. Worst of all, it were totally out of reach of The Beak, and the constables couldn’t touch it.

London’s jurisdictions work on property, see. The Metropolitan Police, its Lovelace Coppers an’ the beadles, are free to patrol the streets owned by The Corporation of London. But three realms lie out of their reach. First off, no constable can affect an arrest in Parliament, which means the blackguards of Westminster are safe to bugger up life for the rest of us. Second is the Clink, the stretch along the South Bank of the Thames, which is ruled by the Bishop of Winchester and his heavies. And finally there’s a small spot, a pustule on the face of Holborn, called Ely Court, which lies under the rule of the Bishop of Ely. And wouldn’t you know it, but the Bishop’s Arms takes up one side of the square.

For the thief-takers that’s a problem, because they can’t go in to the square – on technicality it’s out of their juristiction. And as for the scalliwags, well, the Arms offers amnesty, an oasis free from warrants in the heart of the city. There’s no one that knows the law better than a career scoundrel, and the rogues had soon got wise to the boundaries of law. Ely Court were a festerin’ mess of robbers, murderers and pox-strewn strumpets, and exactly the kind of place occult mystery would take seed.

‘Course, what they failed to reckon upon is that a Witch Finger upholds the Witchcraft Act by the power of the Church of England, with liberty to enforce all issues pertinent to my charge. I could venture into any territory of Her Majesty and enforce the law, includin’ a viper pit like Ely Court and the Bishop’s Arms.

That’s why I found myself stalkin’ through Holborn a few nights later, me iron-capped bobbyknocker ready to crack skulls, with a scheme to raid the Bishop’s Arms on me own.

If I knew what I’d find inside, I’d have brought the bleedin’ army.


IX. 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

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F. Montgomery Skaldon, demonstrating his trousers

Dear Bunnie,

What holds, good fellow? I trust you’re capital? I sold the family some gammon about the coin incident, but I’m up for a little more lark if you get my meaning, and would appreciate your advice. Funds are flowing, the music is free, and my muse is ignited by the most wonderful companion I’ve encountered. I feel like Orpheus in the grip of Eurydice! Romance has worked its way under my skin, and the splinter of love is burrowing to my heart!

I have met the most remarkable girl. Found her on my sojourn to Limehouse (Fat Chen’s for a spot of the dragon, then on to Mayfair for a totty-chase). Shapes in all the right places, with blessed puddings that makes a chap wish to bury his head and go ‘burrrrr’! Red of hair but won’t hold it against her, for there’s nothing so spirited as a ginger minx when you return to chambers, what? Cherubic face, with high cheekbones and Roman nose, and the most impudent pillowed lips you could imagine. I suspect she’s a slave to the dragon too, for she was in a tizzy when we met, and (after we decided to venture to a gin palace instead) matched me drink for drink as I tried to get her to slip into something a little more comfortable. No luck so far, but the finest game is always worth the hunt!

She’s got a mouth on her, and that’s part of the attraction. Told me her name was Charlotte, and giggled when I took to calling her Charlie. But just when you think you’re charming her toward the Turkish Two-step, she pulls off like a teasing minx. It was in minutes I found myself spouting the most sentimental thoughts in the hopes she’d keep me company. Why, I’ve even demonstrated the fine pattern of my trousers to her, and she still acts oblivious to my intentions!

I think I’ve caught a fine bit of scrumpet, and know just the activity to encourage her surrender in this game of love. Do you remember the Bishop’s Arms off Holborn? Gaff right in the heart of London, but untouchable from law because of a quirk of ownership? She’s hinted she’d like to go there, as she hears the poppy’s sweet. Well, who am I to refuse a lady? We’ll be visiting next Wednesday.

Which brings me to my line of enquiry. I know you visited there, and said it wasn’t just a poppy den; that something queer was taking place in the back rooms? Some religious rot about jewelry, and so forth? Let me know if I should keep my wits while there, or at least take some form of armament. The creatures of the Establishment are circling for my blood, and I’d much prefer to keep my nose out of affairs of state.

Please give my felicitations to all other acquaintances in the vicinity of your homestead,

Monty


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.