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.

The Most Boring Man in Fallen London, Part Four

Penned upon the 19th of January, 2014

The corner grocer was astonishingly keen to purchase the honey, despite Doctor Taupe-Wainscot’s warnings that it may have been contaminated with some sort of narcotic compound; indeed, he seemed to believe he could resell it to a man from ‘Hollow Street’, wherever that was. In any case, the doctor was happy to be rid of the stuff, and the banknote the grocer had paid him – an unfamiliar design, evidently issued by the city government – rested reassuringly in his pocket-book. On returning to the widow’s house, he found his hostess in the front hall, locked in cheery conversation with a nervous-looking clergyman with a fringe of greying hair. This, he deduced, was the local vicar, and he quickly found himself being shepherded into the parlour with an exhortation to “tell the Reverend all about your travels!”

He felt insufficiently acquainted with modern theology to follow all his visitor had to say, but the fellow was certainly familiar with the more unusual aspects of life below-ground. Despite its disorderly appearance, London was apparently a very healthy city – he spoke of a “general vitality” and “absence of mortality.” “Infernal influences,” too, were a recurring theme – Taupe-Wainscot was surprised to hear the language of fire-and-brimstone sermonising coupled with such a mild and amiable manner. When asked about unsolicited gifts of rats, the vicar made a sympathetic face, and said that the rat-catchers would pay to remove such collections – “that they might collect the bounty themselves, you know.”

When he raised the subject of the city’s ungoverned children, the vicar was particularly interested. They were a problem in all parts of the city, and were often seen running messages and errands for London’s less reputable citizens. Indeed, one of his colleagues – a deacon who did excellent work among the poor of the East End – had lost several texts from their collection to one such youth, who had stolen them in hope of turning them in to the censor as obscene works and collecting the reward. The girl was bound to be wary of clerical influences – could the doctor, by any chance, intervene on the church’s behalf, before the books were destroyed?

He was, he had to confess, rather less than at his ease in the noisy streets of Spitalfields – and he was sure he’d got his nursery-tales muddled with the vicar’s stories from the apocrypha – but he felt that this was a job well done. He looked forward to telling the story at the church dinner, or fĂȘte, or whatever they held down here – a young tearaway, rescued from the clutches of crime by the wisdom of his experience! He was wondering, in an abstract sort of way, whether he’d end his tale with a toast to the deacon, or simply a polite bow and acceptance of the inevitable applause, when a rough with a shaved head and a cast in one eye caught him in the stomach with a knobbly elbow. He hadn’t the air left in him to protest, and could only watch and wheeze furiously as the oaf bumped into another passerby, and… hang on…

The very nerve – he had been jostled by a common criminal, practising their ignominious trade! Well, the fellow had made a fatal mistake – he’d been uncovered by one of the finest observers in the Empire! He spotted a policeman on the corner, and hastened to him, crying “You there! Constable! I must make a report of the utmost urgency!” The officer appeared not to hear him, and turned to continue his patrol down another street, but the doctor caught his elbow and began his explanation.

He positively glowed as he stood outside St Paul’s, looking for a cab. His civic duty, done twice in one day! He wasn’t sure why the officer’s sergeant had given him a parcel of old clothes as a reward – he’d certainly not mentioned being in need of any – but no doubt the widow’s charitable project would have some use for them. Not to mention that, thanks to the vicar’s timely advice, he’d been able to afford a replacement for his favourite topper, which had been lost in the… the confusion at the funicular station. This one was a trifle taller than he was accustomed to, but it was, he was sure, not so daring as to draw the idle eye – it was a hat to reassure, rather than shock, the citizenry.

He was soon ensconced in the widow’s rear sitting room – built as a conservatory before the move underground limited its exposure to the sun – telling her of his morning’s adventures as the maid laid the table for luncheon. She appeared suitably impressed with his recounting of the meeting with the bible-thief, and was just leaning in to appreciate his struggle with the pickpocket – displaying as she did an expanse of lace-bound dĂ©colletage – when there was a crack, a shower of broken glass, and a cat landed on her head. Taupe-Wainscot sat, flummoxed, before the necessity of coming to her aid occurred to him, and he was about to fling himself from his chair when an urchin – another d-mnable urchin! – landed in his lap like a sack of soot.

Once the glass had been swept up, the wounds of the party treated with a solution of carbolic acid, the damaged skylight sealed with an old curtain, and the cat rescued from the pantry (where it had gone to ground, hopelessly enmeshed in a tangle of red curls,) the girl was able to offer some explanation for her behaviour. She told a fanciful story, of a town of beggars and outcasts living on the city’s rooftops, right under – or, in this case, above – everyone’s noses. She’d been chasing the cat because she thought it might know the location of a treasure that would win her favour with the rooftops’ king, and had just pounced upon it when the glass beneath them had given way.

The doctor was inclined to throw the young troublemaker out on the street, but his hostess begged him to take pity on the poor mite – the skylight could be mended, and wasn’t a painting a small price to pay to see a lost child returned to their home? After all, that nice Mr Hodgson who lodged around the corner was an artist – surely he’d have some suitable work to contribute? Though she’d heard he was having to move, poor man – they’d best go and see if he was at home, and, if not, ask his landlord if they thought he had a canvas to spare.

The doctor felt this to be an unsatisfactory conclusion. The girl had left them in peace, to be sure, but she’d damaged the widow’s home and terrified the lot of them, and faced no worse punishment than getting exactly what she’d wanted all along. And that was to say nothing of her mistreatment of the poor cat – this cat-chasing was a most distasteful game. He had to confess to a certain fondness for animals – indeed, he’d first imagined life in the medical profession when, as a child, he would sit with his father’s spaniels, tenderly removing the burrs from their coats and the thorns from their paws. And his mother’s cat, which would curl up with him in the window-seat as he sat reading… no, he could not let such misbehaviour continue! He located a pot of ink, nearly full, in the drawer of the writing-desk in his room, and laid out a very sternly-worded letter to the Clarion Call. If this didn’t see the animals of London treated with more respect, he didn’t know what would!

Fallen London and all its contents are (c) Failbetter Games 2010-2014.


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