Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

An Anecdote of Infrastructure

Penned upon the 13th of April, 2016

I don’t know that I’ve told you the story of Humphert Narrow. “Straight-As-A” Narrow, as he was known, was Inspector of Public Works for the Borough of Constant Tooting, enough years ago that this position carried a great deal of respectability. He was a professional of the old school – one who had no time for the varsity set, with their flippant manners and their up-to-date protractors. “Errant nonsense”, he’d say – the substitution of education for good sense.

No, his career was made by the soles of his boots, the set of his brow – and by the heavy old walking cane he habitually carried. Considerably larger and longer than usual, this accessory served as his tool of the trade and, indeed, as his badge of office. When, in the course of his rounds, he came to a building project – whether it was the laying of a gutter or the construction of the new courthouse – he’d lift his cane to shoulder height, fix it parallel to the works with a loud “crack”, and, if there was any deviation between the two, declare at the top of his voice “It’s bent! Tear it down; do it again!”

“Straight-As-A” Narrow’s brusque manner and exacting standards were a considerable point of pride for the people of Constant Tooting – townsfolk would say that anything particularly fine was “good enough for Humphert Narrow”, and, when travelling beyond their home pastures, would joke “It’s bent! Not like back home!” Narrow himself grew old in the job, and eventually retired, taking a comfortable townhouse which he shared with his son and daughter. Even in his declining years, he would still occasionally be seen on his familiar rounds, stick in hand.

When he died, his effects were collected by the council to be put on display at the town hall. There, it was discovered that, over its years of heavy use, his stick had warped, and was bent almost fifteen degrees from its correct line – and so, therefore, was any building which had used it as a rule. The endless unnecessary rebuilds and corrections, added to those that needed to be done to constructions now shown to be structurally unsound, was estimated to have cost the municipality tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds. Narrow’s portrait was torn down from its former place of pride, and a furious mob descended upon his house and systematically bent everything they could get their hands on, from the decorate columns beside the front doors to the spoons in the butler’s pantry.

“Straight-As-A” Narrow is rarely mentioned in Constant Tooting these days, except as a dour allusion to the importance of a modern education. His children left the borough, and were last seen living in a prefabricated dormitory in Weston-under-Mustard. The cane itself was broken down for matchsticks, and, for years afterwards, folks would pause while lighting their pipe or stoking their fire to observe “It’s bent!” and watch the slivers burn away to nothing.

The Most Boring Man in Fallen London, Part Fourteen

Penned upon the 29th of August, 2015

The Cuttlefish cut through the waters of Carissa’s Point and directed its bow towards London. Mr Porter, propped against a packing-crate, snored loud enough to drown out the engine, while his children attended to the tiller with wordless efficiency. Doctor Taupe-Wainscot recalled their previous voyage, and the sinister ship that had followed them along the coast, and wondered aloud whether they could expect any trouble this time. It was the younger Porter boy who answered. “No, I shouldn’t think so. The merchantman Joseph Bramah passed this way only an hour ago – she’s fitted with Caminus deck-guns. The threat of her will be more than enough to keep all the local vermin in their nests.”

Well, that was something. The doctor relaxed, and let his gaze settle on a point of blank horizon. Though he had slept better than his fellows, the rhythmic thump of the engine and the lap of the waves at the hull had a soporific effect, and his thoughts grew confused. If that was a Tomb-Colony, who was its governor? What was the effect of immersion in wine on the optic nerve? And why was she called Joseph if she was a lady? He rested his head on his hands and his elbows on his knees, and, gradually, his eyes fell closed.

He was awakened by a sound exactly like an elephant eloping with a stolen tuba, and spent a complex moment wondering what he was doing back in Jaipur. Then, the elder Porter boy eclipsed his vision, peering out over the rail, and he realised he was hearing a foghorn. There was a ship ahead, red and white and impossibly bright… a lightship, moored off the coast! Porter Senior was standing up and waving, and a uniformed figure was waving back. “Helloa, helloa! It’s alright, Ham – we know this crowd. Often stop by and pass the time of day when we’re taking the boat out. Helloa!”

A line was thrown onto their deck, and the doctor soon found himself amid a huddle of zailors, holding a mug of milky tea. The Porters were sharing the latest gossip from among London’s scientific and technical set – professional rivalries, and academic snubs, and hints of love affairs between researchers. The lightship’s crew listened with rapt attention – except, he noticed, for one woman, whose gaze kept returning to the darkness of the water. She was stout and rather handsome, and the hand she rested upon the railing was adorned with a ring of the old-fashioned sort, with a row of different-coloured stones. Their colours were somehow dizzying, and he felt compelled to ask about it. “I say, is that an acrostic?”

Porter looked up and said “Eh? Where?”, as the zailor’s head snapped around in surprise. Sheepishly, the doctor continued. “I beg your pardon – your ring, I mean. Is it the acrostic sort, with the stones spelling a message?”

“Oh – yes. Not the stones themselves – they are all amber – but their colours.” She lifted her hand up to the light to demonstrate, and the reflections span across his vision, chimerical, impossible to quite pin down.

“Blue-pink… er, violet… red-black? Teal?”

“Violant, irrigo, gant, irrigo, apocyan – VIGIA. For we are watchful. The light that offers guidance to others is for us revelation, and we do our duty.” From this, the conversation turned to the sights the crew had seen from their post; merchants leaving London loaded with goods, and returning – some flush and happy, some morose and defeated. Prison-hulks making their final, sombre journeys to the isle of Wisdom. Circumcellion raiders harassing traders running supplies to Abbey Rock. The decorously deadly Set announcing an exhibition of vivisection in the Blue Bazaar of Port Carnelian. One zailor launched into a tale of an attack by the pirate he called “the Modiste”, and something in his story of a flame-headed figure cutting a swathe through the Royal Navy’s finest jogged the doctor’s memory.

“That sounds rather like the young lady who stood me a cider last Feast of the Rose.”

Percival Pease blinked behind his bandages. “She stood you… aside her?”

“A cider. To drink.” The assembled company were staring at him, wide-eyed. “It was very nice of her.”

The lightship’s captain crossed himself, and turned to Mr Porter. “He’s… drunk the fruit of Paradise? Is your friend having us on?”

“If he says it, it’ll be true, though I’m not sure I believe it myself. What were you doing hobnobbing with someone so notorious, Ham?”

“And is it true she stole it from the Masters’ own vaults?”

These inquiries opened a floodgate of questioning from the crew, which Taupe-Wainscot was quite unable to answer. Had he tried going back to the Surface? Had he dreamed of Mother Stone? Would we ever return to the Garden? This last appeal, from a jowly zailor with deep-set eyes, was met with scowls by the others, and someone muttered something about candles. The doctor shivered. A northerly wind had picked up, and was noisily making itself known. The ship shook and rattled, and, somewhere to his left, there was a crash.

All in a moment, the lightship’s crew were at their posts, securing lines and shuttering portholes. Doctor Taupe-Wainscot latched on to the only word he was certain he’d understood. “Storm?”

Son Minor nodded as he packed away an elaborate telescope. “They don’t happen often, but when they do, they’re intense. I believe they’re a result of disturbed air currents emanating from the Cumaean Canal, unless the stories surrounding the eastern Calumnies are to be believed…”

“Oh, hush, Laurence.” Daughter Porter pushed the Cuttlefish out to zee, leaving the lightship behind them. “We all know where storms are born, and it’s not your dratted Calumnies.”

Stout put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “Don’t bicker, crew. Due south and full ahead, and we may yet outpace the winds.”

The crew was hushed as the boat rolled south atop the gathering waves. Percival Pease sat on his travelling-bed and tugged nervously at his bandages. Son Major stoked the engine, glancing up now and then as the sound of stones hitting the water was audible over the roar. His brother, peering at a ream of charts, sidled over to their father and murmured “Hard to starboard if we want to head straight for London, captain.”

Porter chewed his lip. “Better not to risk it until we’re sure we’re clear, or we’ll end up moored on top of Watchmaker’s Hill.”

For what felt like hours, they pressed on south, as the wind grew louder, roaring like a curse out of antiquity. Dump gusts tore at their clothes and stung their eyes. At long last, the zee began to settle, and they stood and watched the darkness behind somehow settle, the crashing of thunder fading to the “bread-and-butter, bread-and-butter” of the last droplets falling from the roof. The Porters drew together in a silent embrace, while Doctor Taupe-Wainscot sat on a packing-case and waited for his heart to stop pounding. Pease was the first to return his gaze to the zee ahead, where –

“Hoy, in front! Land! Rocks!”

Daughter Porter hauled at the tiller and the boat responded gaily, and in a moment they were running alongside a great dark cliff that rose out of the water. “Who the devil left that there?” muttered Stout. “Any idea where we are?”

“Difficult to say; the last Alteration was only a month ago. If it’s not an inhabited island, it may not be on any of the charted routes…”

“I dare say,” interjected the doctor, “that there are inhabitants of some sort. Observe the fire burning at the peak.”

There was, indeed, a warm glow illuminating a ring of stones at the top of the cliffs. Pease cocked his head to the side. “Is it just me, or… I swear I can hear music.”

Gradually, they cleared the cliffs, and the breadth of the island presented itself to them. Stone cottages dotted the hill, strung with swaying lanterns, and crowds of people danced between them. “Salt’s whiskers, it’s the Mutton Island harvest festival. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the pudding basin! Darling Daughter, bring us in; we’ll stop and enjoy ourselves for a while.”

The Cuttlefish glided to the pier, where a hiccuping wharfinger tied them off and offered a calloused hand to Miss Porter as she stepped ashore. Stout led the party along the winding stone path. “Alright, what do we fancy? There’s beer, music, some sort of game where you throw cockles at a stuffed donkey… ah, Rubbery Lumps! Darling Daughter, do you remember when you were a little girl I could carry on my shoulders, and I took you to the carnival?”

“And you told me that Rubbery Lumps were the flesh of the peligin eel, which lives in sunken lighthouses and eats children who misbehave.”

“And the first time I took you out in the boat, we saw a great gulping eel come winding up beneath us, and you picked up the gun and shot it dead. And we hauled it on board and fried it up and made our own Rubbery Lumps.”

“We were sick for a week.”

“We surely were. Do you remember that baby’s rattle we found in its gullet? We polished it up, good as new, and gave it to your little brother… actually, where are your brothers?”

They turned about in time to see the pale figure of Pease disappearing out of sight. “I think they’ve found the beer tent, Dad.”

“Ah.” Mr Porter leant his ample weight on a faded marker-stone. “Well, never mind – we’ll make our own fun without them! In fact, this looks just the ticket.” And he pointed up at a hand-painted banner that hung above their heads, which read FISHING CONTEST – EVERY CATCH WINS A PRIZE.

“Have pity, Stout – I’ve only just gotten dry. I was hoping to remain that way a while longer.”

“Buck up, Ham – faint heart never won fair haddock.” He met the doctor’s eye, and softened. “All right, I’ll tell you what – we’ll keep close to the shore, in the shelter of the island – no more storms or bats or pirates, I promise. The Cuttlefish will be much more comfortable with just the three of us. And, whatever prize we win – it’s yours!”

Taupe-Wainscot relented, and allowed himself to be led back to the pier. Soon, they were bobbing in a sheltered cove, the false-stars reflected faintly in the still water around them. Porter rummaged through trunks until he found a rod and an extremely jumbled box of flies. “Fetch out that parcel by your elbow, Ham – the one wrapped in cheesecloth – and we’ll see what the boys packed for our picnic.”

The doctor unwrapped the bundle, revealing a neat stack of sandwiches, a wheel of cheese and a flask of tea. He handed sandwiches to his companions, and was just settling down to enjoy his own, when –

They gathered at the railing and watched the morsel disappear beneath the black water, releasing a stream of mayonnaisey bubbles. “Bad luck, old boy – you’ll just have to make the best you can of the cheese. The stuff they sell down here almost certainly isn’t made of spiders, but… best to check it for eggs first, just in case.”

After a minute’s cautious examination, Taupe-Wainscot tentatively refreshed himself with a slice of apparently eggless cheese and a cup of lukewarm tea. Mr Porter cast a line over the edge with a pleasing little “plop”, and seated himself down on a packing-crate with a rather larger one. His daughter finished her repast, delicately wiped her fingers, and set a stern eye upon the water. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as they sat in silence. Now and then, something broke the water, beyond the reach of their lantern. An eerie blue glow appeared, circled the cove, and then vanished once more. Once or twice, the boat rocked, as if jostled from below. Whenever the doctor made to speak, Porter would say something like “Ssssh! I’m just about to land it!”

Finally, Miss Porter rose and took his arm. “It’s no good, captain – the fish are there; they just aren’t interested in the bait.”

Porter sighed. “I know. But I don’t want to have wasted your time coming out here. Time for Plan B?”

“Time for Plan B.” She turned, and the doctor saw the enormous musket the carried under one arm. All in one movement, she rested it on the railing, aimed, and, after a moment’s consideration, there came an ear-shattering report.

As they stared, the corpse of a great fleshy zee-beast, shot neatly through the heart, conspicuously failed to rise the surface before them. Miss Porter grumbled and threw the gun onto the seat, retreating to the other side of the Cuttlefish for a smoke, while her father tutted sympathetically. The doctor examined the weapon, which seemed extravagantly long and was decorated with carved bone. “Wherever did you come by this piece, Stout?”

“Eh? Oh, that? Picked it up from a chap who picked it up from a chap in Schabelport. Never been myself, but I’d rather like to. Apparently it was made to be fired from astride a camel, though deuce knows where anyone expected to find a camel over there.” He glanced at his daughter. “Come on – let’s get this kit packed up and go see that the others haven’t got into too much trouble.”

The doctor went to take up the discarded fishing-rod, and found it unexpectedly reluctant to be taken. It nearly wiggled over the side before he got a grip on it, and he had to tug mightily to move much it at all. With a great heave and a sudden spray of salty water, something green and furious arced through the air and landed on the deck.

“Good heavens! Well done, old boy! It’s a… actually, what is it?”

Miss Porter held the writhing specimen up for examination. “Not any fish I’m familiar with – I dare say it’s a juvenile, strayed from the spawning-grounds. Vicious set of teeth on it, though. And some very odd… growths.”

Her father blushed. “Oh, er, yes. Well, I dare say Son Minor would know what it is, from phylum to genus.”

“And why its tail looks like a lady with great big -”

Taupe-Wainscot coughed, and Mr Porter hurriedly took their catch and dropped it into a bucket. The Cuttlefish‘s engine started again with a merry little rumble, and the lights of Quaker’s Haven soon slid into view. The wharfinger was fast asleep when they reached the town, leaving Miss Porter to make the leap to the pier to loop their line around the mooring-post herself. They wandered for some minutes before they found sign of the fishing-contest – a large placard beside the path, which proclaimed YOU’RE PICK OF PRIZES. (“Ominous”, Miss Porter remarked.) Nearby, beneath a drooping apple tree, stood a lady of obvious noble bearing, who greeted them with a decorous wave.

Mr Porter accepted the flask from the doctor, drunk deeply, and returned it to the lady. “Ah, cheers. Now – you’re responsible for the fishing contest?”

“You might certainly say that, hunofficially.” She seemed momentarily troubled, but brightened considerably when presented with the specimen in the bucket. “Oh, most ‘andsome. A fine example of a young Neptune’s ‘arlot- er, Strump-… Courtesan. Concubinus poseidonicus, as I believe it’s known. Yes, I can certainly make us of that. You’ll be wanting your prize, of course. Please, step this way…”

The doctor glanced at his companions, who looked at him expectantly. “Your moment of triumph, Ham.” Nothing for it, then. The lady led him down a cliffside trail, to a rocky outcropping, where several battered pieces of luggage were heaped under a piece of canvas.

“Any further,” said the lady, “and I would ‘af to ‘ave you blindfolded and sworn to secrecy, but it ‘appens that the wrec- the organisers of this Feast left these fine prizes ‘ere for our use. And such a fine catch deserves a co-men-surate reward.” She took up a small hessian bag and pressed it into his hands with a shocking wink. Fumblingly, he turned it over and drew from it something heavy and angular.

When he looked up again, the lady had disappeared, and he was quite alone. Retracing his steps, he made his halting way back to the town, where he found his fellow travellers reunited – the elder Porter boy was dancing with a curly-haired local lad, while his brother and Percival Pease shared a plate of cockles. Porter Senior stood up to greet him. “What did you win? Pirate treasure? The true Rubbery Lumps recipe? More of this famous cider you never thought to tell us about?”

“I got… a rock.”

Son Minor held out his hand, and Taupe-Wainscot dropped the prize into it. “Hm. Looks to me like a shard of pliocenic flint, discoloured with some sort of ferrous compound. That is, in lay terms…” He shrugged apologetically. “It’s a rock.”

The doctor threw himself onto one of the low benches. “Stout, thank you for the holiday, but this zeefaring life does not agree with me. I want a drink.”

His first glass of beer left a clinging, sour, and generally unpleasant taste in his mouth, which he attempted to wash away with a second. The third served as accompaniment to a plate of chips, and the fourth simply gave him something to do with his hands while Peas told a longwinded story about a Phoenician zailor and a fortune-teller. The fifth was spilled when the zailor in question appeared, taking umbrage at having stories told about him. The sixth was the zailor’s round, shared over a jolly zee-chanty, while the seventh turned out to actually be a bottle of very excellent claret, which the doctor clung to gamely as he staggered across the hill. He’d just gone to find where Porter’s boy and his curly-haired friend had slipped off to, and he’d be back in a matter of moments –

The widow gasped as he staggered into the hall. “Why, doctor, I didn’t know you’d be back today! And how was your journey?”

He sneezed. “Utterly miserable, my dear lady. If I never see another sailing-boat, that will please me very well.” He slumped into an armchair. “I beg your pardon; I forget myself. How is everything here?”

“Well, we’ve had some, er, interesting news… your cat, with the very healthy appetite?”

“Yes?”

“…do you have any friends who might like a kitten?”

Fallen London is © 2015 and ™ Failbetter Games Limited: www.fallenlondon.com. This is an unofficial fan work.

Can You Tie It In A Bow?

Penned upon the 4th of August, 2015

In what might very loosely be considered a tribute to the continuing centenary of the Great War, I’ve been investigating a couple of examples of puzzling phraseology that have both been attributed to that era. First, that well-known American children’s song, “Do Your Ears Hang Low.” Some trace the lyrics back to soldiers’ songs of WWI, if not earlier, but I’ve personally yet to see a textual reference earlier than the 50s. Variants exist that refer to damn near every body part that could even conceivably be described as “hanging low”, but only the version used in 1969’s Easy Rider, “Does Your Hair Hang Low”, makes the least lick of sense to me. One’s hair can indeed hang low, and be tied in a knot – and what else is a Continental soldier going to wear over their shoulder, barring their pelisse or perhaps their sword-belt? Unless the armies of Europe have taken to exclusively recruiting Bodhisattvas, ears are unlikely, and the other usual suspects would be considered a gross violation of uniform. Alas, though, what documentation there is suggests that hair was a late contender, demonstrating the great irrationality, and tragic hairlessness, of things in general.

Secondly, I’ve long been fascinated and faintly puzzled by the popular catch-phrase “I get you, Steve.” I first came across this in Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1928 novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, where it’s used just as “I get you” would generally be used today – to intimate understanding of a given subject between casual acquaintances. The only question is Steve’s role in the whole affair. Planet Peschel, usually a good source for Sayers’ allusions, speculates that it might refer to a music-hall piece. Various other sources from across the decades suggest that the phrase might be Australian soldiers’ slang and/or a line from an American film. It shows up, with various spellings, at least as early as 1912, in the comic novel Officer 666 (which was, in fact, adapted into a wartime Australian film… which admittedly doesn’t help.) Whoever this Steve was, he seems distinct from the Steve of distinct catchphrase “Come on, Steve!”, which apparently refers to 1920s Derby winner Steve Donoghue – as the schoolboy said of Homer, not Steve, but another man of the same name.

Until further information comes to light, I think I have discovered as much about these phrases as I can without putting terribly much effort into it or being entirely bothered about the outcome. At the very least, there is no evidence that Steve’s hair does not, in fact, hang low.